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Hollywood's Distribution Dilemmas Woven Into Sunday Primetime Fabric

Copyright and piracy take center stage on 'The Simpsons' and 'The Good Wife' 1/06/2014 03:45:00 PM

Online content distribution is on the minds of many in Hollywood these days if Sunday's broadcast prime time lineup was any indication. Ok, it is much on their minds whether or not it had surfaced as plot lines on two different shows on the same night. (It is much on the minds of Washington policymakers as well, but their concern usually surfaces as lengthy FCC or court filings rather than entertaining TV.)

But I digress.

The Simpsons--"Steal this Episode" (a takeoff on Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book)--took aim at online movie piracy with a story about Homer's travails after Bart convinces him to illegally download a movie. Per usual, the show does not go light on its home network, Fox, which is portrayed as periodically inserting NASCAR footage into the episode at moments where big studios come in for criticism. The episode takes aim at both sides of the debate--the studios who suggest that piracy reduces their "billions and billions and billions" of dollars to only "billions and billions" and Homer's justifications for stealing the show--the movie theater was noisy and studios make lots of money already, or that pirating fills the basic human need of getting new, big-budget entertainment in their homes for free.

Fox has been a leading voice for protecting copyrighted content, including battling online content delivery service Aereo, ironically backed by Fox’s former chief architect, Barry Diller. Somewhat eerily, the Simpson’s episode aired only days after a Canadian court came down with a judgment of more than $10 million (Canadian) against a pair of sites offering pirated copies of...The Simpsons.

Over on The Good Wife, the CBS drama spent its time on episode "David and Goliath" hashing out the debate over complicated copyright laws in an age of exploding technology via a ripped-from-the-headlines (Ok, pretty old headlines) storyline about a cover of a cover of a rap song and whether it had been ripped off by a TV network for use in a hit show, "Drama Camp." (The evocations of the flap over Glee's version of "Baby Got Back" and its similarity to Jonathan Coulton's version of the Sir Mix-A-Lot song were unmistakable.)

“We were inspired by the Glee-Jonathan-Coulton dust-up when writing the most recent episode of The Good Wife – ‘David & Goliath,’” confirmed Good Wife cocreator Robert King.

The issue is a complicated one and involves the difference between getting a license to do a cover, and a derivative license, which allows for the kind of rearrangement of the song, and new meolody, both Coulton and The Good Wife musician engaged in. In the show, the singer loses for lack of a derivative copyright, but lawyers take a new tack, arguing that if the cover was a parody, it was a new work and the network needed to get its own copyright approval for its similar version. Even the TV judge conceded the law copyright laws didn't make a lot of sense, and the ending of the show was a suggestion of a settlement, but nothing settled about the copyright confusion.

Given that both Glee and The Simpsons are Fox hits, that network was getting the majority of the grief in Sunday's copyright-a-thon, if only by association on The Good Wife. Fox had no comment.

But the focus was not confined to scripted shows. CBS's 60 minutes Sunday featured a piece, Hollywood Villain, profiling Kim Dotcom and the Megaupload site that the U.S. government says was an online copyright pirate stronghold costing content owners--primarily movie and TV studios--hundreds of millions of dollars for facilitating copyright infringement on a massive scale.

So, was Sunday some kind of copyright storyline night sponsored by the Motion Picture Association of America. Well, no, said a spokesperson, who said as far as they knew it was just a coincidence, though not a surprising one. (It would not be beyond the bounds to posit such a roadblocked storyline strategy. Multiple programmers have inserted anti-smoking and anti-drug themes in the past.)

The MPAA spokesperson pointed out that The Good Wife has dealt with copyright issues in the past, including episodes related to efforts to enhance search engine optimization (SEO). Google has said it adjusted its algorithm to demote pirate sites by taking into account how many infringement notices they had received, but MPAA has questioned its effectiveness.

"Everybody wants to talk about copyright," said the spokesperson.

To check out "David & Goliath," go to CBS.com, where that network has a full and unremixed (legal) version of last night's show available for viewing. The Simpsons won't be available online until eight days after its airdate and to authenticated users only (Hulu-Plus). A summary of the episode is available here.

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