Firing Blanks

Valenti Bumbles Through Deposition on DVD Piracy

For a man intent on stopping a cyberjournalist from destroying the film industry, Jack Valenti appears to know awfully little about his target. In a deposition transcript released last week, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America appears stumped by such basic questions as the name of the person the film studios are suing.

Doing an excellent impersonation of Ronald Reagan, Valenti answers again and again, "I don't know" and "I'm not sure." He also admits he knows of no incidents of movies being pirated with DeCSS, a DVD decryption program posted online by journalist Emmanuel Goldstein. In fact, Valenti says he hasn't even heard of DVD-CCA, the trade organization in charge of DVD licensing.

This lack of knowledge seems all the more conspicuous given the fact that Valenti has railed against the decryption program in the press. In an April 14 letter to California senator Dianne Feinstein, Valenti claimed that "just a few keystrokes on an ordinary household computer will enable people throughout the globe to make perfect copies [of DVD movies]." In his deposition, Valenti said he wasn't sure who told him this was possible, and did not know himself if it was.

Vast portions of Valenti's deposition were blacked out, raising the question of whether the studios' lawyers were going against a court order to make available all nonsensitive material. On June 6, Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled that Hollywood could block access only to certain narrow categories of information, primarily the parts of transcripts that reveal personal information or trade secrets. Transcripts of depositions from Valenti, Fritz Adaway, president of the trade group DVD-CCA, and Disney head Michael Eisner must be made available to the public in three days. Other transcripts must be available in 10 days.

Hollywood's lawyers had hoped the judge would grant a protective order banning the posting of transcripts on the Internet and otherwise barring the public from information gleaned through the discovery process. In rejecting the film studios' request, the judge noted their pattern of seeking press attention. "Given the extent that you folks have gone out and solicited publicity," Kaplan said, "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Despite the judge's clear intention that transcripts be made available as soon as possible, the Voicecould not obtain the Valenti transcript until last Wednesday, several days after it should have been made public. A lawyer for the Voicewrote a letter to both sides protesting the situation.

In addition, due to a consequential snafu, about one page of Valenti's testimony that was meant to be redacted wound up posted on the Internet at cryptome.org. The section dealt with a fairly benign question asking Valenti whether it would be illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act for Linux users to play DVDs on their computers. Valenti says it would.

Ed Hernstadt, one of Goldstein's attorneys, says it's hard to understand why Hollywood's lawyers thought the public shouldn't see this exchange. "Materials which we don't believe can be justified under any definition of confidential have been withheld from the public," Hernstadt says.

Charles Sims, a lawyer for the studios and former staff counsel for the freedom-of-the-press champion ACLU, refused to discuss the issue, saying, "It's not a matter of press interest."


MORE VOICE STORIES BY JEFF HOWE ABOUT DVD PIRACY

The Quiet Man Published June 7 - 13, 2000
Hollywood Fights to Seal Jack Valenti’s Testimony

Down By Law Published May 3 - 9, 2000
When Movie Moguls Wage War to Protect Copyright, the First Amendment Ends Up on the Cutting Room Floor

 
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