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Magazines > Information Today > November 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 11 — December 2003
International Report
Serbia
By Richard Poynder

Web gurus used to boast that the inherently democratic nature of the Internet allows the little guy to deal with the big guy on an equal footing. Today, such claims may appear a bit naive, but is the Web indeed able to help the weak challenge the powerful in ways not previously possible?

Aleksandar Skocajic, a Belgrade, Serbia-based mechanic with Telekom Serbia, thinks it can. For the last 8 years, he has exploited the Web to pursue three of the world's largest movie companies for alleged copyright infringement.

Skocajic believes that Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Studios, and Walt Disney's Touchstone Pictures all acquired plagiarized versions of "Magma Town" ("Volcano of Death"), a screenplay he wrote in 1994. This fictional account describes the dramatic consequences of a volcano eruption in a major U.S. city.

When the companies denied his allegations and then stopped responding to his letters, Skocajic began an aggressive e-mail campaign. Working out of his small one-room apartment in Belgrade, he has e-mailed hundreds of people, including employees of the three movie companies, legal experts, journalists, and movie stars. He has campaigned so vigorously that even high-profile personalities like Charlton Heston have communicated with him.

To better argue his case, Skocajic has used the Web to learn about copyright law. "I have been able to contact many attorneys and intellectual property specialists by e-mail, and I have read over 150 professional articles about U.S. and international copyright online," he says. "Without the Internet, I would have been powerless, because I have no money to make telephone calls or to retain an attorney."

Why does Skocajic believe he is a victim of plagiarism? In 1995, he sent "Magma Town" to more than 30 Los Angeles-based film companies and producers. Those who replied returned the manuscript, saying that it wasn't suitable material for a movie. A year later, however, Skocajic learned that three new movies were planned with similar plots to "Magma Town," including Fox's Volcano, Universal's Dante's Peak, and a film from Touchstone Pictures with the working title Ring of Fire.

While Skocajic is unable to prove a direct link between the people to whom he sent his screenplay and the three separate writers who sold their scripts to the movie companies, he says he has found more than 250 scenes in Volcano that are similar to scenes in "Magma Town," and more than 80 in Dante's Peak.

"My case is very interesting and probably unique," says Skocajic. "To my knowledge, never before have three of the wealthiest film companies in the world bought three scripts from three different writers, all of which, there is reasonable doubt to assume, were plagiarized from my original script."

Disney has yet to shoot Ring of Fire, but the other two films have been very successful. Skocajic estimates that Fox has earned around $14 million from Volcano, and Universal $16 million from Dante's Peak.

Unable to persuade the companies to address his claims satisfactorily, Skocajic filed suit in the Belgrade district court in 2001, charging Fox and Universal—along with the distributors of Volcano and Dante's Peak—with copyright infringement. Action against Walt Disney may follow, depending on the fate of Ring of Fire.

After an unsatisfactory first hearing in Belgrade, Skocajic concluded that to improve his chance of success, he really needs to move the case to a U.S. court. The problem: His monthly salary is just $300. San Francisco-based James Braden, one of the many U.S. attorneys who has declined to act for him, says that Skocajic is "in no position even to pay out-of-pocket costs, much less any legal fees."

We can't know whether Skocajic is truly a victim of plagiarism or just a guy who had a bright idea that others had independently. What we do know is that none of the movie companies wants to discuss the matter. Repeated requests I made to a Fox representative drew no reply. A Universal spokesperson e-mailed simply, "Thank you for your inquiry, but we have no comment." A Walt Disney lawyer responded, "We regard our business dealings as confidential and are therefore not at liberty to answer your questions."

What can we conclude? It appears that although the Internet can indeed enable the little guy to challenge powerful folks in new ways, deep pockets are still needed to force them to the negotiating table. Skocajic, however, is not giving up. "If I cannot get the case moved to the U.S., I will continue to pursue it in Belgrade," he says.

Meanwhile, his online activities continue unabated. Who knows? They may eventually prove more effective than we think.

U.K.

While many commercial content companies have struggled to make a success of the Web, the BBC has quietly established an enviable reputation as a major online news source. Today, BBC Online news (BBCi) is one of the most frequently visited sites on the Web.

In recognition of this, audience management and analysis company Nielsen//NetRatings named BBCi "British site of the year" for 2002. Last February, it commended the site again, reporting that traffic had increased dramatically over the past year. And today, BBCi ranks fifth in NetRatings' UK Top 10 Properties, just behind the major search engines.

But the BBC's online success has proved to be a mixed blessing. As a publicly funded organization (all U.K. citizens who own televisions pay a compulsory license fee), the BBC faces growing accusations that its online presence is damaging the ability of commercial providers to gain users and is therefore adversely affecting their ability to generate revenue.

The BBC, however, disputes this. Speaking to online news service Silicom.com in August, Ashley Highfield, the BBC's director of new media and technology, argued that since 65 percent of those visiting BBCi subsequently move on to other sites, "we're actually driving e-commerce." He added that the $120 million spent by the BBC on its Web arm accounted for just 3 percent of license-fee payers' money and represented "very good value."

Nevertheless, in response to the complaints, the U.K. government has announced that it will review BBCi. While this will form part of a wider review of the BBC's overall charter (which is due to be re-examined in 2006), the government has made it clear that a key aim is to assess the commercial impact that BBCi has had on the market. "We want to look at quality and value for money, how the online services fit with the BBC's public service remit, the services' impact on competition, and on the general development of the BBC's online services," said Tessa Jowell, U.K. Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport.

The U.K. government's anger with the BBC over its coverage of the conflict in Iraq will not help the BBC's case. Some are already speculating that BBCi's success may be used to help justify weakening the BBC's overall remit. There are rumors, for instance, that it may be forced to sell off all its popular programs, leaving it with just the public service broadcasting (news, arts, and education) that no other broadcaster wants.

Respected U.K. journalist Polly Toynbee told The Guardian in September: "For an indicator of what is to come, study Tessa Jowell's current review of the BBC's brilliant and world-beating online service. If she listens to false arguments about 'unfair' online competition and cuts it back, then fear the worst for the BBC's future governance under its 2006 charter."

If that were to happen, it would surely be an odd way of rewarding one of the few media organizations to make a resounding success of the Web.

Australia

In September, in what the Australian recording industry immediately heralded as the world's first criminal prosecution for online music piracy, three Sydney men pleaded guilty to infringing the copyright of Universal Music, Sony, Warner, BMG, EMI, and Festival Mushroom Records.

In April, Tommy Le, Peter Tran, and Charles Kok Hau Ng were arrested in their homes by police following a joint investigation with Music Industry Piracy Investigations (MIPI), an Australian recording industry watchdog. The three men now face up to 5 years in jail and $39,325 in fines for illegally distributing up to $60 million worth of music on a Web site called "MP3 WMA Land."

MIPI investigator Michael Speck told the AFP news wire that the use of criminal law in this case would send a strong deterrent message to online music swappers. "It shows courts are prepared to see this as just another form of illegal misappropriation of property," he said.

Ironically, 2 weeks earlier, The Australian had drawn its readers' attention to the U.S.'s "2003 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers." This report, the paper explained, had "highlighted the 'relatively low priority' assigned by Australian state and federal police to the enforcement of copyright law." What the U.S. wants, it added, is for Australia to take a tough line on music, movie, and software piracy and to adopt a copyright regime based on criminal law. It pointed out, however, that U.S. trade negotiators had decided that "shoe-horning" Australia into toeing the line could prove "a bridge too far."

But doesn't the recent case suggest that Australia already has effective criminal sanctions and is adequately enforcing them? "Australian copyright law provides both civil and criminal remedies against copyright infringement," replied a spokeswoman for Australia's attorney general (who is responsible for copyright legislation). "In March 2003, wide-ranging amendments were made to the Copyright Act to strengthen civil and criminal sanctions for breach of copyright."

What has upset the U.S., however, is that Australia has yet to ratify the 1996 WIPO Copyright and WIPO Performance and Phonogram treaties—the agreements that gave birth to the controversial U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

In the world of copyright, it seems that one size fits all and every country must plumb the depths of its own DMCA nightmare. This pleasure awaits Australia. The attorney general's spokeswoman added that the Australian government has committed to acceding to the WIPO treaties "subject to completion of the necessary legislative and consultative processes."

Cambodia

In a move designed to help dislodge Microsoft Windows from Far East markets, Japan, China, and South Korea are throwing their weight behind the creation of an open source operating system for the Asian market.

An agreement was reached in September at an Asian economic summit held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Japanese trade minister Takeo Hiranuma made an official proposal that was backed by China and South Korea.

Expected to be based on open source software such as Linux, it remains unclear whether the planned new OS will be created as a government-backed venture or consist of government support for a system distributed by the private sector. Nevertheless, Japanese media have reported that Japan's government has committed $86 million to the project.

In what Techworld.com described as "a remarkable pot-calling-the-kettle-black incident," Microsoft immediately denounced the proposal, claiming it could raise concerns over fair competition. Tom Robertson, Microsoft's Tokyo-based director for government affairs, told Reuters: "We'd like to see the market decide who the winners are in the software industry. Governments should not be in a position to decide who the winners are."

Speculating that one of the goals of the new initiative may be to extract price reductions from Microsoft, Techworld also pointed out that when the government in Thailand launched a scheme to offer subsidized Linux PCs, Microsoft responded by cutting the price of Windows in that country.

Nevertheless, there's growing support for an "Asian Linux." China already has its own version of Linux called Red Flag and an office productivity suite called RedOffice. The Chinese government has mandated that its offices should use only locally produced software in their next upgrades.

Elsewhere in the region, the Malaysian government has reaffirmed its support for the use and development of open source software. At the Free & Open Source Software Conference 2003, Amar Leo Moggie, Malaysia's Minister of Energy, Communications, and Multimedia, argued that over-reliance on "foreign proprietary software" would hurt his country. He said that since Malaysia has little chance of becoming a world leader in proprietary software, Malaysians are currently "limited to being users of the software ... [and] ... consumers of somebody else's product."

Surely this will prove the key driver for the development of an Asian Linux. After all, while extracting price cuts from Microsoft may ease the pain, it will not end the region's dependency on the West. What an Asian Linux promises, by contrast, is independence from Western software companies plus an opportunity to create a more reliable and flexible operating system than Windows provides.

 


Richard Poynder is a U.K.-based freelance journalist who specializes in intellectual property and the information industry. His e-mail address is richard.poynder@journalist.co.uk.
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