A trial got underway on Tuesday to determine how much VidAngel, the family-friendly streaming service, will have to pay for violating major studios’ copyrights.
The company, based in Provo, Utah, operated a service in 2016 that allowed users to filter out objectionable content from Hollywood movies. Disney, Fox, Lucasfilm and Warner Bros. filed suit, and got an injunction to shut the service down. In March, U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte ruled against VidAngel, finding that the company had violated the studios’ copyrights, but left it up to a jury to decide damages.
In his opening statement on Tuesday, plaintiffs’ attorney Kelly Klaus argued the VidAngel had willfully violated the law. He told jurors that VidAngel had operated its service by ripping unauthorized copies off of DVDs.
“They stole them from these,” he said, holding up a handful of DVD cases. “Everyone knows you can’t do that. It’s just not allowed.”
He urged the jurors to impose the maximum penalty, which would run to about $125 million, saying it would serve as a deterrent to other violators. VidAngel has declared bankruptcy in Utah, and has about $2.2 million in the bank, according to its most recent operating report.
Mark L. Eisenhut, an attorney for VidAngel, argued that CEO Neal Harmon and others at the company had operated in a good faith belief that what they were doing was legal. They relied on the federal Family Movie Act, a 2005 statute that permits filtering of offensive content — such as language, nudity, immodesty, or violence — from authorized copies. VidAngel’s attorneys advised that the copies were permitted because the company had paid for the DVDs.
“They bought 72,000 discs,” Eisenhut said, adding that 65% of VidAngel’s customers said they would not have watched the movies without content filtering. “All VidAngel does is bring a lot more people to the table.”
Eisenhut also argued that the studios were at fault for failing to make filtered copies of their movies available to the faith-and-family audiences. He said VidAngel would have been happy to pay a license fee to the studios, but the studios refused to do business with them.
“We don’t do don’t it that way in our society,” Eisenhut said. “When there’s a way to accommodate, we accommodate.”
Eisenhut asked the jurors to impose the minimum penalty of about $600,000.