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INSIGHT: Intellectual Property Rights in the Age of the Streaming Wars

March 9, 2020, 8:00 AM

Entertainment media is undergoing a major shift. Internet streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, once upstart entrants into the market, have come into their own as dominant forces.

Now, with legacy content players like Disney and NBCUniversal and tech giants like Apple launching their own entertainment content delivered directly via streaming, we’re seeing even more dramatic developments.

One of the primary challenges the industry faces amidst the innovation and disruption is a legal one: accurately and fairly tracking the rights to thousands upon thousands of pieces of intellectual property. Achieving this kind of visibility means adopting an array of new processes and solutions that can address the unprecedented volume and complexity of rights management in the digital age.

Be it legacy or streaming, a shift in the typical historical processes is not only in everyone’s interest but is essential to the sustained growth of the industry.

Current Approach Like a Catacomb

In many ways, the current approach to rights management resembles the legal equivalent of a catacomb. Vast and disorienting, current contracts systems are a combination of unlinked databases, personal drives, and physical archives, some offsite, and kept in boxes.

Many of the major players already on the scene, or close to it, have massive amounts of content, but can’t readily access rights information to determine quickly what is available for potential streaming.

The result is inefficiency, confusion, and often even unnecessary litigation. All of this impacts the corporate bottom line. But there’s an even greater cumulative effect on the industry as a whole: decision processes are slowed, industry intelligence is incomplete, and content is frequently tangled up in rights issues holding it back while the industry around us moves forward ever faster. New business models mandate accuracy and velocity, not age-old manual bottlenecks in the office of general counsel.

To change and thrive in this system, entertainment companies will have to adopt new approaches to rights management—from the very moment of contract drafting, instead of waiting for a research request to come in—which means adopting new processes and technologies, as well as new services.

Companies are starting to look at artificial intelligence and machine learning, for example, to weed through documents, though AI in contract reading is still in its nascence. The industry could not be more ready for better intelligent inventory management—especially in mining the value of material created long before today’s distribution and consumption models were thought of.

Innovation Needed

Businesses need to drive innovation in contracts, contracting processes, and rights information with agile tools, modern data structure, analytics, AI, and network technologies to track rights agreements, obligations, conflicts and other critical elements.

Currently available solutions, including legal process outsourcing, which the banking and health care industries have used with success, are promising and cost-efficient when considering the long-term impact to those with vast archives. However, there is more to do.

Matching and leveraging technology with legal teams to meet business needs is a vital step to agility in this landscape. Properly assessing the current state and executing on a roadmap to an optimized future state is mission critical.

The relentless acceleration of entertainment growth brings market opportunities for innovators, solution providers, and agents of transformation. Examples include the launch of Peacock from NBCUniversal, Disney+, and more on the horizon.

As legacy companies with complicated and varied rights to older content face the new direct-to-consumer streaming platforms, which have much simpler rights needs, they see that investment in knowing what they can and cannot do with their old movies and TV shows will be expensive—but not even close to as expensive as creating original shows and movies from scratch. These established players can’t afford—and don’t want to—miss opportunities to create spin-offs, remakes, sequels, and re-release content on new streaming platforms.

Rights which are stuck in a file box are, quite simply, revenue left in the vaults. That is too much of our past. No matter what side of the business you may represent—legacy, streaming, talent or traditional distribution—rights which are immediately available to a content strategist or sales team can only bring more opportunity and value. That is our future.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Ed Klaris is the CEO of KlarisIP, a boutique consulting and managed services firm focusing on IP rights and royalties, digital asset management and metadata. He is also managing partner of Klaris Law, a boutique media, entertainment, technology, and intellectual property law firm, which he founded in 2014. Before starting his own firm, he served as general counsel for The New Yorker, media counsel at ABC Inc., and as a litigator at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.

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