Here’s a story of what happens when busy reporters have only one main source for a story—and that source is a press release.
Back in 2011, members of the Motion Picture Association of America filed a suit against Hotfile, a cyberlocker service that lets users upload files and creates a link for each one. It was a popular service, and among the files that users uploaded and shared were copyrighted movies. In its complaint, the MPAA members argued that Hotfile not only knew about this activity but encouraged users to upload infringing content and that the company was liable for infringing their copyrights.
At the end of August, Judge Kathleen M. Williams issued a ruling in the case. The ruling was not publicly available at the time, but the MPAA sent out a press release about it.
In general, there are two categories of publications who follow these sort of copyright issues: those that cover the entertainment industry and those that cover technology. In this case, reporters from the two different types of publications spun what little information they had in opposite directions, both sides using the same release.
The entertainment sites blasted the story as a straightforward victory for the industry group. While a couple of outlets were clearer about the sourcing—“MPAA Calls Hotfile Ruling a ‘Victory’ for Hollywood,” wrote Backstage—not all of them were so judicious. From Deadline.com, which, as a rule, will aggressively echo whatever position the MPAA is promoting, “MPAA Wins Hotfile Copyright Lawsuit.” The Hollywood Reporter: “Hollywood Studios Win Massive Hotfile Lawsuit.” Even the Los Angeles Times: “MPAA wins ruling in Hotfile anti-piracy case.”
Technology publications, though, flipped the script. In this reading, it’s not the MPAA that won, but Hotfile that endured a negative legal outcome. “Court rules against Hotfile in piracy case,” said The Hill’s technology blog, Hillicon Valley. CFOWorld: “US court finds file-hosting service Hotfile infringed copyright, says MPAA.” GigaOM: “Court finds Hotfile, and the guy running it, guilty of copyright infringement.” Ars Technica: “Hotfile loses federal copyright case, MPAA says.”
It’s natural for entertainment publications and technology publications to focus their headlines on the group that hailed from the industry they cover. But in the entertainment publication’s case, that meant trumpeting an MPAA victory. And there were alternatives. Variety opted for a restrained, clear and accurate headline: “MPAA: Piracy Hub Hotfile Found Liable for Copyright Infringement.”
Although some of these stories had additional sources, all of them relied heavily on the same limited information that the MPAA press release offered. (The Verge, which published a longer story a few days later, was a notable exception.) The MPAA’s head, former Connecticut senator Chris Dodd, got to say many times that “We applaud the court for recognizing that Hotfile was not simply a storage locker, but an entire business model built on mass distribution of stolen content.”
Which wouldn’t be a problem, if that’s what the court had clearly said. But there was no way to verify it. Now the Williams opinion is available, and, as the Hollywood Reporter—the only publication who appears to have followed up on its original story—says, “a look at the 99-page ruling that has finally been released presents a little more nuance.”
The judge does address, at length, Hotfile’s business model and the “pastiche of evidence” the studios presented about it. But she does not recognize that it was “built on mass distribution of stolen content.”
Instead, she says that the studios failed to show that “Hotfile’s inspiration, RapidShare, actually was a pirate network” and ignored that Hotfile had “noninfringing uses” as well as the ones that piqued the studios. She also notes that “not one document shows a business plan contemplating infringing uses or an understanding that Hotfile was actually assisting users to commit infringement.”
Here’s how the Hollywood Reporter’s Eriq Gardner sums up the actual order:
And yet, even after saying there was “some evidence suggestive of a deliberate design to facilitate infringement” through Hotfile’s various incentive programs, Judge Williams says, “a number of questions remain regarding Hotfile’s intent (actual or imputed) to foster infringement and the capacity for and scope of noninfringing uses of Hotfile’s system.”
This isn’t to say that any of the publications who took the MPAA’s word on this were totally wrong: The judgment did find Hotfile liable for infringement, which can be seen as a “win” for the MPAA. But even publications that didn’t cede the headline to the movie group let the industry’s spin drive the story, with little follow-up to see if it was correct. Because, in this media environment, who has time to read a 99-page legal decision that comes out weeks after the press release announcing its existence?
Disclosure: CJR has received funding from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to cover intellectual-property issues, but the organization has no influence on the content.