For 'Avatar,' three-strikes means a quick out

From the be careful what you wish for file: Twentieth Century-Fox’s Avatar, which is rapidly approaching the top spot among all-time global box-office grosses, and would likely be the biggest selling Blu-ray title to date when released at Christmas time, will actually be released on June 1st, at least in most of the world. Amazon France is already taking pre-orders, for 28.99 euros.

Why not wait until the most propitious time of year to release such a monster title in order to maximize sales? Because it would be against the law in France to wait beyond June 1. And if you release it in France, under EU rules, you’ve effectively released it throughout the EU. And if you release it in the EU, you’ve effectively released it throughout Blu-ray’s Region B, which includes Africa and the Middle East as well as Australia and New Zealand, where they speak a version of English. And if you’re going to release a movie with an English soundtrack in Region B, you might as well release it in Region A, which includes the United States, because it’s going to end up on the Internet sooner or later, probably sooner.

Welcome to life under France’s new three-strikes regime.  

Often overlooked in the hoopla surrounding the three-strikes provision in France’s Creation and the Internet law passed last year that established a procedure for cutting off Internet access for repeat copyright infringers, were other measures strictly regulating release windows for movies in France. Under the law, any movie released theatrically in France must be released on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as made available for authorized downloads, exactly four months after its theatrical debut.

Since Avatar was released in mid-December, Fox was technically obliged to release it on Blu-ray/DVD/ in mid-March April, although a separate provision in the law allows a distributor to petition for a one-time extension of the window in the case of very high-grossing films (or for quicker DVD release of  theatrical turkeys). That bought Fox another six weeks, to June 1, but that’s it. The fact that the distributors’ business interests might best be served by waiting longer doesn’t count in the law.

That’s the sort of thing that can happen when you invite the government to regulate an industry sector, especially the French government. It’s rarely subtle and it frequently end up cutting both ways.

For all the benefit the studios may get from France’s three-strikes rules–and at the moment that doesn’t actually look very promising–they could end up losing due to the loss of flexibility over how they manage their businesses.

Because of how the Blu-ray and DVD regions are drawn, because of the global nature of the Internet, the laws of France could end up, as a practical matter, dictating studio business strategy worldwide, particularly as digital distribution platforms become more critical to the bottom line. That, in fact, is precisely what French president Nicolas Sarkozy–so widely praised by U.S. content owners for his “leadership” in protecting copyrights online–set out to accomplish when he proposed the Creation and the Internet law back in 2008: to make France the world leader, not just in copyright protection but in promoting the digital distribution of culture.

Sarkozy may have gotten what he wanted. But as Fox is discovering with Avatar everyone else may have gotten more than they bargained for.