VidAngel, a company that filters profanity, sex, and violence from movies and online streaming shows, has incurred the wrath of Hollywood film companies since its inception.
Now, it faces an uphill battle after a federal judge ruled last week it must pay $62.4 million in damages to studios that accuse it of copyright infringement. VidAngel CEO Neal Harmon called the ruling “unjust on many levels” and vowed to appeal it. The per-work judgment, which assigns a fee for each alleged instance of copyright violation, is one of the highest ever assigned in a massive infringement case.
The studios, led by Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros., also filed a separate claim this week stating that VidAngel is trying to hide its assets ahead of the collection of those damages. The Utah-based company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2017 after a judge issued a preliminary injunction against it one year prior, causing the company to close down its service for a time.
Harmon, who founded VidAngel with his brothers in 2013, told me Disney and the other studios involved have been aware of all the company’s dealings and transactions through public filings and communications made months ago: “This is an effort to twist and smear. We are hiding nothing. What’s really happening here is the studios don’t want people to skip and mute things without their permission.”
VidAngel is still operational and has more than 1 million users, according to its legal counsel, David Quinto. It charges subscribers $7.99 a month to access movies and streaming content from Netflix, Amazon, and HBO, then allows them to set filters, choosing what their family will see and hear. Previously, the company used a complicated check-in system that only allowed users to watch filtered movies on DVD.
Since the 2016 injunction, VidAngel has been prohibited from offering its users any content from the studios involved in the litigation, including Disney, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and a growing list of companies they own. VidAngel has fought the court challenge with a robust legal and public relations defense, arguing filtering content is legal under the federal Family Movie Act of 2005, which states that consumers can tweak movies for personal viewing.
Harmon says VidAngel causes no financial harm to studios and has actually brought them profit, since viewers pay for DVD copies of films and for existing streaming accounts.
Parents Television Council President Tim Winter called last week’s ruling against VidAngel “tragic.” In a statement last week, Winter entreated Congress to update the Family Movie Act, bringing it “into the 21st Century” and preventing “a death knell for content filtering.”
“It is beyond ironic that a company named after Walt Disney would sue to prevent the filtering of graphic sex, violence, profanity and other explicit content from movies,” Winter said.
Meanwhile, VidAngel has been producing original content, including Dry Bar Comedy, a profanity-free stand-up series with 1.5 billion views to date, and The Chosen, a TV drama about the life of Jesus that was released earlier this year following a crowdfunding campaign that raised $10.2 million.
In an open letter to Disney CEO Robert Iger last week, Harmon offered to give Disney its Dry Bar Comedy series in order to settle VidAngel’s “‘so-called debt,’” allowing the company to donate its filtering assets to Skip Foundation and focus on its production company.
But VidAngel is simultaneously preparing its appeal. “We’re going to fight,” Harmon told me. “Either we’re going to prevail, or the system will tell us it’s not possible.”