LOS ANGELES (CN) — Warner Bros. has sued Innovative Artists, a major talent agency, claiming it illegally made some of the studio's movies available online while the films were still in theaters.
In its federal lawsuit Monday, Warner Bros Entertainment accuses Innovative Artists Talent and Literary Agency of stripping digital anti-theft protections from pre-release DVDs of at least two films and posting copies on a company internet site available to many in the industry.
The special DVDs, known as "screeners," are sent to movie professionals for consideration in voting on Oscars and other awards.
The lawsuit arrives just as this fall's Oscar nominating season is getting underway, and appears to be a warning shot to remind the film industry to guard screener DVDs carefully.
What Innovative Artists did was "blatantly illegal," Warner Bros. says in the complaint. "That illegality would be obvious to anyone, but especially to Innovative Artists, a talent agency that claims to promote the interests of actors, writers, directors and others whose livelihoods depend critically on respect for copyright."
In a statement late Monday, Innovative Artists said it "is sorry for the improper sharing of the screener movies and will seek to resolve this matter with Warner Bros. on fair and reasonable terms as soon as possible."
It said it immediately shut down the internet site where the movies were posted when Warner Bros. contacted it in December, and that it was surprised the studio went ahead and filed the lawsuit.
"Warner Bros. is well aware, from its past experience with other industry entities, the sharing of award screeners is commonplace within the Hollywood community," the statement said.
Warner Bros. attorney Kelly Klaus, with Munger, Tolles & Olson, declined to discuss the case.
The studio says in the lawsuit that late last year it sent Innovative Artists screeners of at least two films — the "Rocky" spinoff "Creed" and Ron Howard's "In the Heart of the Sea," about the 1820 sailing disaster that inspired "Moby Dick," for the talent agency to forward to a client.
But instead of sending them straight to the unnamed client, the agency "ripped" the DVDs using "illegal circumvention software" to remove technological safeguards that prevent copying, Warner Bros. says. Then Innovative Artists copied the unprotected films from the DVDs to a special company folder on a cloud-based file-sharing platform, Google Drive, where it shared assorted screeners.
"Innovative Artists did not have plaintiff's authorization, permission or consent to upload copies of the copyrighted works to the digital distribution platform," Warner Bros. says, but the agency posted the copies "in the clear" without security protections.
Then Innovative gave "access credentials" to its Google Drive folder "to numerous managers, family members, friends and others outside of the agency" knowing that they "could and did download copies ... to other computer media."
In one case, the agency gave access to the folder to an assistant at another company who had given Innovative a screener it didn't already have, Warner Bros. says.
By December, "Creed" and "In the Heart of the Sea" had leaked out to a pirated-film sharing website.
A Warner Bros. security firm spotted the illegal copies on the pirate site and traced them to the Innovative client using a unique digital "watermark" attached invisibly to each screener to identify the recipient, according to the complained.
Warner Bros. complained and the agency shut down its Google Drive platform. A log provided by Innovative Artists showed that more than 20 users had downloaded the Warner Bros. films between Dec. 18 and Dec. 22 last year, according to the lawsuit.
Although Innovative's sharing folder is gone, the company has not "entered into a formal agreement, enforceable by injunctive relief, preventing it from using plaintiff's works to populate a similar digital distribution platform now or in the future," Warner Bros complains. "Circumvention and infringement such as committed by Innovative Artists causes immediate and irreparable harm to plaintiff."
Warner Bros. seeks an injunction, disgorgement of profits and damages for copyright violations and violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.