Skip to main content

Tracking Where Shows May Be Shown

Programmers hope to squeeze every ounce of revenue from their content as video gets sprayed across the Internet, out to mobile phones and into overseas markets.

But one of the stickiest wickets in a multiplatform, multi-continent world is being able to track the minutiae of existing licensing contracts to make the deals.

In the age of digital expansion, content creators face a daunting task of managing rights over new and unexpected platforms. Did the director of Amazing Detective Tales negotiate a cut of future digital rights in foreign markets? Did the soundtrack composer grant only one-time broadcast permission? And did the star of the program negotiate the rights to use his image on T-shirts in China, but not in Sri Lanka?

Such questions lead most to call-in legal department minions who must spend days or weeks sorting through old agreements to find answers.

“What we saw was appalling — paper contracts in dusty cabinets. It was kind of crazy,” RSG Media Systems CEO Mukesh Sehgal said, recalling the state of how major programmers tracked rights just a few years ago. Even today, he said, few have any kind of system past a spreadsheet and a few Post-It notes to keep track of the information.

Sehgal’s New York-based company is one of a handful that offers a software platform to catalog, sort and track all the intellectual property involved in creating and distributing television shows.

The goal for the small video rights-management software sector is deceptively simple: provide carriers with the ability to query their own content agreements quickly and efficiently to take advantage of short-notice opportunities.

The lack of insight into the distribution rights for a piece of content can throw up serious roadblocks. “We know a company that had to walk away from a $10 million deal because they couldn’t trace the rights,” RSG vice president Thomas Siegman said. “Needless to say, they were a tad frustrated.”

The main vendors in the sector include RSG, Jaguar Consulting, Pilat Media and Sophoi. Sophoi is a relative newcomer to the turnkey-software game, while the others have been consultants to large broadcasters over several decades and are better known for building customized rights-management platforms.

Discovery Communications recently started using RSG’s RightsLogic, which the vendor pitches as a comprehensive workflow system that tracks contracts of both acquired programming and original productions.

The software is working well so far, said Discovery executive vice president for legal and business affairs Doug Coblens. “It’s a great tool, and what we’ve been looking for [for] many years,” he said.

LABOR INTENSIVE

However, like other rights-management platforms, the RightsLogic database must be loaded with specific contract details before it can be of any real use. That’s not a trivial task. Discovery generates 1,000 hours of original programming each year. Currently, a group of six paralegals is keying in data from past legal agreements.

Coblens expects the job to be done by the middle of 2008. “It’s very labor-intensive,” he said.

Still, Coblens feels the effort is worthwhile and he’s hopeful the system will save at least 30% of his staff’s time in archive searches alone. It will also be available to other business units at Discovery to do their own searches and will return results written primarily in plain English, rather than legalese.

Gartner analyst Van Baker said there are pitfalls to working with any of the vendors because rights management is constantly becoming more complex. “Nobody has a perfect product,” he said. “Managing intellectual property is a moving target.”

Vendors admit the problem is daunting, but insist they have the solutions. The granddaddy of rights-management systems is Jaguar’s, whose intellectual-property-tracking product, System 7 Universal Rights Management, is used by the National Geographic Society, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and Lions Gate Entertainment, among others.

The product offers in-depth database features to track sales and licensing, legal acquisition and negotiation, royalties and cash flow. It also provides a graphical analysis function that allows users to see the royalty and rights breakdown of a single asset.

FILING 50,000 CONTRACTS

The drill-down function comes in handy for big clients. National Geographic uses Jaguar’s product to administer more than 50,000 contracts dating back to its famed Americans on Everest TV program in 1964. The society also has to track intellectual assets over a proliferation of media properties, including National Geographic Channel, National Geographic Interactive and its consumer-products division.

Jaguar sales VP John Grubbs said the company started from the finance end and built a contract-management system into it. He said Jaguar, founded in 1985, makes the lion’s share of its money from software fees, which range from $60,000 to $400,000 per installation, plus a setup charge which runs about half of the licensing fee.

Meanwhile, RSG’s RightsLogic includes a searchable asset library, an inventory system, program planning and scheduling and finance modules. Like nearly all the products in this space, the finance and schedule functions are not stand-alone--they shake hands with the user’s existing in-house financial and operations platforms.

RSG has spend the last 20 years building custom software for heavies like NBC Universal, Bravo, Showtime Networks and MTV Networks. RightsLogic is a newer effort to package that knowledge in single product, though RSG executives touted their ability to tune RightsLogic to a customer’s needs.

“The devil is in understanding the business,” and designing a product that solves real problems, Siegman said.

RSG officials declined to discuss the price of RightsLogic but claimed the system, available in different configurations, usually pays for itself within one year.

Los Angeles-based Sophoi is a prime competitor to both RSG and Jaguar. Its Intellectual Property Licensing Suite, or iPLS, ranges in price from about $700,000 for small installations to $3.4 million for large ones. The 9-year-old company has 155 employees and a development center in India.

The iPLS is also a workflow platform, able to handle project management and rights allocation, legal review (including intellectual property infringement control and tracking), contract administration, royalty payment terms as well as a rights-clearance process.

The platform is designed to integrate with Oracle’s enterprise accounting systems. “At the end of the day, you get a royalty report back,” Sophoi vice president of sales Greg Eansor said.

Sophoi currently has seven clients, including DreamWorks SKG, CBS and British Sky Broadcasting.

Another player in the field, Pilat Media, is focused specifically on broadcasters. Based in London, the company offers an enterprise platform called the Integrated Broadcast Management System, or IBMS. This is a big chunk of code, of which rights management plays only a small part.

The full enterprise system includes modules for promotions, program scheduling, analysis and reporting, log management finance and even proposal tracking. Customers include the BBC, Media General and ESPN Star Sports. Recent contracts have ranged from $3 million to $7 million.

Gartner’s Baker encourages rights-management system buyers to do some serious due diligence and to challenge older-line vendors to prove their product can be flexible. “Do some pilot stuff,” he said, “and proceed very gradually.”