Bill Nye never contemplated that the term “video device” would one day include streaming or downloading services when he signed a 1993 agreement with Walt Disney Co. subsidiary Buena Vista Television to deliver episodes for “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” the television personality’s attorney states in court papers.
In his written final argument to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Cowan capping a pretrial hearing in Nye’s profit-sharing suit against Disney and BVT, lawyer A. Raymond Hamrick III states that Nye believed at the time that video devices applied only to video cassettes and laser discs — both of which were manufactured and dissimilar to delivery systems such as Netflix and iTunes.
Nye, 65, filed the lawsuit in August 2017, maintaining BVT engaged in questionable accounting and cheated him out profits from his show. The television series originally ran from 1992 to 1997 on PBS, and is still streamed on services such as Netflix. The judge in December heard testimony from Nye and other witnesses and asked that the attorneys give their final arguments in writing, which they did on Jan. 8.
The judge will decide later whether a jury is needed to decide some of the disputes in the case or if he will hold a non-jury trial on the accounting issues.
Hamrick cited the testimony of experts to interpret the 1993 contract regarding its alleged inapplicability with modern digital rentals and with subscription services. Hamrick and Nye maintain the streaming and downloading services are not video devices because they did not exist at the time and had no associated manufacturing costs.
But defense attorney Lucia E. Coyoca argues in her court papers that a video device is broadly defined to include any device “embodying the series” that is similar to traditional physical home video. She further maintains the process involved in creating and delivering the digital file in conformance with the technical specifications of each of the platforms that license the series establishes that they are in fact manufactured.
“The uncontroverted evidence clearly establishes that BVT’s interpretation of the agreement is correct,” she says in her final written argument.
The viewer on a system such as Netflix or iTunes can see complete episodes of a program, just as someone could watch an entire episode of a program on a videocassette or video disc, Coyoca argues.
“The definition of a video device under the agreement calls for the device to be similar to a videocassette or video disc and that it embodies the series,” Coyoca argues. “Both requirements are met here.”
The distinction is important because if streaming services are found to be video devices, Nye and other owners of the show would only be entitled to 10% of the revenues. If the streaming revenues are not found to be video devices, then Buena Vista should be splitting the profits 50-50 with Nye and the other show owners, according to Nye’s court papers.
Nye testified that prior to coming to television, he worked as an electrical engineer. He said he and the co-creator of the show created a pilot in 1992 and that the program was originally produced in a small building in Seattle.
Asked by one of his lawyers, Charles C. Rainey, if he thought at the time of the 1993 contract that a streaming file could one day be uploaded onto the Internet, Nye replied, “Absolutely not, no.”
Nye also said he never imagined back then that the show would one day be on a service such as Netflix, but that the he did foresee the possibility of Netflix carrying it once the platform was created.
Nye said he believed the others behind the show held up their end of the bargain.
“We agreed to do a high-quality show that would stand the test of time,” Nye said.
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