THR's Raising the Bar Honoree
Billion-dollar piracy suits and satirical presidential bids are all in a day's work for top Viacom lawyer Michael Fricklas.
Call him Snooki's lawyer. Or the man who defends the foul-mouthed kids on South Park. As the general counsel at Viacom, corporate parent of MTV, Comedy Central and Paramount Pictures, Michael Fricklas is responsible for the legal issues for the 11,000-employee company that produces thousands of hours of film and TV content each year. It's not what you'd expect from a guy who got an electrical engineering degree from the University of Colorado and then went on to work for one of the biggest mining companies in the world. But after earning his law degree from Boston University and doing patent work, he joined Paramount in 1993, ascending to general counsel of MTV Networks before being given the legal reins at the parent company.
Now, the 52-year-old Fricklas, who will receive The Hollywood Reporter's annual Raising the Bar award July 18 at the Power Lawyers breakfast, is distinguishing himself with a commitment to protecting intellectual property rights. For the past five years, Fricklas has spearheaded Viacom's $1 billion lawsuit against Google's YouTube, a case he insists is more about influencing the future of content consumption than winning money. "YouTube made the decision that they are going to filter [videos]," he notes. "They did that after a year of us bringing the case. So this case is no longer about that issue. It's merely about how they [built] a business that's dominant online and got there through piracy -- or a large part through piracy. Is there compensation to the copyright owners for that?"
Piracy isn't the only thing on Fricklas' agenda. Beyond Viacom's carriage standoff with DirecTV, "There is a whole constellation of issues affecting the business today that reflect the unprecedented amount of change," says the married father of four daughters. "[Take] the advent of the DVD. From the first prototypes to full-scale adoption was years, and during that period, we worked out how they would be retailed and packaged and what the economic model was. Today, those businesses evolve quickly, with less control."
Occasionally, Fricklas finds himself dealing with matters that are a little more, ah, fanciful. "When MTV launched Jackass, we got a demand letter and ultimately a lawsuit from a guy whose name was 'Jackass' who claimed we were infringing on his name." And Comedy Central hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert also keep him busy. "When Colbert decided to run for president, we formed his PAC," he says. "They tend to have really interesting issues."
When Fricklas isn't working, the jazz buff can be found at Lincoln Center (he's on the board of trustees). A night of jazz or watching Jersey Shore? Easy, he says. "Jersey Shore isn't my demographic."
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