A popular video streaming service that allows its customers to filter out bad words, sex scenes and violence is fighting back against four Hollywood studios that say it’s violating copyright laws.
VidAngel, a startup launched by four brothers from Idaho in 2014, responded to a complaint filed by Warner Bros., Lucasfilm, Disney and 20th Century Fox by issuing a counterclaim defending its streaming service.
The studios claim that the unauthorized sale of copyrighted films and television shows in a video-on-demand format is unlawful. VidAngel argues that the Family Movie Act passed by Congress in 2005 explicitly protects its right to sell sanitized versions of legally purchased products.
“When the Family Movie Act became law in 2005, most people watched movies and television programs at home on a television set,” VidAngel’s general counsel David Quinto said. “Today, it is commonplace to watch content on desktop, laptop and notepad computers — even on smart telephones.”
Mr. Quinto, who protected the Academy Awards copyright for more than 25 years, says the filtered streaming service provides convenience for consumers who are looking to “enjoy content as they wish.”
The Family Movie Act resulted from a lawsuit between ClearPlay, a service similar to VidAngel, and several Hollywood directors, as Congress sought to clarify copyright laws. The act increased penalties for copyright infringement but also granted permission for third parties to create a system programmed to skip over or blank out objectionable content.
While there are many services like VidAngel, it is unique because of its stock of freshly released movies and television shows that aren’t available elsewhere.
It’s also cheap. Customers pay $20 to stream a movie, but if it’s virtually returned within 24 hours, they get a $19 credit from VidAngel, essentially making each movie and television show rental a mere dollar.
Craig Hamm, pastor of Tallasahatchie First Baptist Church in Alpine, Alabama, always used RedBox until he stumbled upon VidAngel when he was looking for “Star Wars” movies. He couldn’t find them on Netflix, Hulu or RedBox. But VidAngel had all of them. Within a few weeks, Mr. Hamm and his family had watched the entire “Star Wars” series as well as several other movies on the site.
“There are a lot of things that take place in movies that my family and I simply do not want to see. The ability to filter out different types of material allows us to purchase and watch movies that we would otherwise never watch,” Mr. Hamm said. “This not only puts money in the pockets of those who own and operate VidAngel, but also the directors, producers and actors in Hollywood.”
While the studios agree that consumers have the right to remove unwanted content, a spokesperson for Warner Bros. said the Family Movie Act doesn’t give VidAngel the authority to sell copyrighted content in a video-on-demand platform.
“It does not matter whether VidAngel sells or rents movies. In either case, VidAngel would need copyright owners consent to circumvent access controls to protected discs, make copies of that content, and stream performances of the content to the public,” the complaint filed by the studios explains. “VidAngel does not have consent to do any of these things.”
VidAngel challenged this accusation in its counterclaim. The company says it legally purchases every DVD and Blu-ray disc it sells. Customers can request a physical disc or allow VidAngel to maintain custody.
Regardless, the studios are standing firm in their argument that VidAngel’s use of the Family Movie Act to justify its service is “without merit.”
VidAngel’s attorney firmly disagrees: “Given that viewing filtered content that never leaves the privacy of one’s home cannot harm the copyright holder, there is no reason to deprive families of the ability to do so.”
The complaint filed by the studios seeks the return of all profits made by their products and for the company to stop selling their content. VidAngel has no plans of backing down.
The preliminary injunction hearing is set for Oct. 24.