Hollywood Studios Win Copyright Battle Against VidAngel's Streaming Service

A judge rules that VidAngel can't evade liability for a sex- and profanity-filtering service that broke encryption on DVD and Blu-rays.

A California federal judge has ruled that VidAngel, a streaming service that filters profanity, sex, violence and more from movies, is liable for copyright infringement.

Disney, Warner Bros. and Fox filed suit in 2016 against the company with the allegation that VidAngel was running an "unlicensed VOD streaming service." Initially, VidAngel touted a service where customers bought access to movies for $20 before selling them back for $19. In the interim, customers could apply filters to enjoy "family-friendly" versions of popular content.

The studios alleged that what VidAngel was really doing was "space-shifting" and violating exclusive rights to copy and perform copyrighted works. Specifically, the lawsuit took issue with how VidAngel was circumventing the encryption on DVD and Blu-rays that protected against unauthorized access. By doing so, VidAngel was able to not only offer nudity-free versions of movies, but also access to films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens before such content was available on licensed VOD services like Netflix.

The judge issued a preliminary injunction, and the opinion that the studios were likely to prevail on the merits of copyright claims was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. VidAngel's primary defense of being saved by the Family Home Movie Act of 2005 was rejected because the filtered transmissions were found not to be from “authorized copies” of the works.

Nevertheless, VidAngel kept on fighting, suing for declaratory relief in Utah, looking to bankruptcy court for salvation and aiming for a revised injunction for a service that allegedly passed legal muster.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Andre Birotte Jr. released a series of orders representing more and more bad news for VidAngel.

In one decision (read here), Birotte grants summary judgment to the studios on the issue of liability, rejecting VidAngel's attempt to shift blame to users and further finding that the defendant has failed to raise triable issues of fair use and protection by the First Amendment. In another decision, Birotte has ordered a deposition from a VidAngel executive as studios continue to hunt for damages. Finally, the judge has rejected VidAngel's attempt to modify the injunction.