US6829612: Withoutabox’s Dirty Secret

WithoutaboxIn the last few weeks I’ve spent lots of time looking at film festivals and talking to film festival directors. A very common theme was their dislike of Withoutabox and their frustration that a better alternative doesn’t exist. I was intrigued as to why such a bad situation has gone unresolved for so long. So I dug around to find out:

  • Why is Withoutabox disliked so much?
  • Why did Amazon pay so much to buy Withoutabox?
  • Why isn’t there a credible alternative?

The surprising answer to all three questions is the same – a document called US6829612. But first, let’s have a bit of context.

Withoutabox History Lesson

Withoutabox in 2000Withoutabox (WAB) was set up in 2000 by David Straus, Joe Neulight and Charles Neulight. It was the first website to allow filmmakers to upload their details and apply to multiple film festivals from the same place.

Prior to WAB, filmmakers had to contend with physical entry forms, language barriers and the nightmare of trying to pay submission fees in different currencies. Withoutabox made the whole process of submitting films to festivals significantly easier.

Withoutabox in 2005In 2008, eight years after it launched, Withoutabox was bought by IMDb for a reported $3 million. IMDb started life in 1990 as a British non-profit community Usenet board and was purchased by Amazon in 1998.

It was clear that there would be advantages to IMDb / Amazon in owning Withoutabox, but even so the price tag seems rather large for a relatively small marketplace. Surely Amazon would have to worry about copycat sites popping up and taking slices of their festival submission business?

Not so, thanks to US6829612.

Festivals say that it’s expensive…

Withoutabox is not free for festivals. Festivals with submission fees are charged $500 – $1,500 to be listed on Withoutabox and up to 18% of the filmmaker submission fees. In addition, WAB forces all festivals to reduce their standard submission fee by 5 currency points, i.e. $5 in USA, £5 in UK, €5 in Europe, etc. This means a festival with a £25 standard submission fee would actually only receive £16.40.

It’s worse for festivals which don’t use submission fees, as Withoutbox charges $2,000 just to be listed.

…and buggy

A common complaint of film festival directors is that the WAB system is slow and buggy, which is not surprising as the underlying technology doesn’t seem to have been updated in many years. A couple of years ago the site suffered a repeated bug which would wipe over new festival information with old data, meaning everything from text to logos were regularly out of date. Another issue is with the ‘online screeners’ system, which seems to fail on a regular basis.

“It’s not me, it’s you”

All this has meant that many festivals are leaving WAB. Of the 304 festival which Withoutabox credited as “founding festivals“, only 134 have used the site to accept submissions in the last two years. In my recent survey I found that only 45% of festivals use Withoutabox, and of those they rate WAB 4.2 out of 10 for “value for money“.

So if Withoutabox is so unpopular, why are there no credible alternatives? The answer is US6829612.

What is US6829612?

Ok, enough context. What is it that made Withoutbox so valuable to Amazon, that results in such poor service and which has prevented any rival appearing? It’s a patent.

In 2001 Withoutabox was granted the monopoly on using the internet to administer film festival submissions. US patent US6829612 is described as such: Withoutabox patent

Internet-based film festival digital entry and back office services suite model. A new computerized methods using a database system on a global network to administer film festivals. The methods include the filmmakers inputting film information into the database, which information becomes available to selected film festivals. The system preferably handles multiple submissions to different festivals, processes applications, provides simultaneous judging of a competition, and schedules film play times at the festivals.

This means that if anyone tries to set up a rival to Withoutabox they will have to contend with the full force of Amazon’s lawyers and deep pockets. In the process of conducting my film festival survey I was approached by no less than four groups of people who were considering creating a WAB-killer. One of them had some big names attached and were it not for patent US6829612 I think they would have really shaken up the film festival world. Competition in the submission market could drive down fees, provide a credible alternative for free-to-enter festivals and force WAB to improve their site. But US6829612 prevents this. Shame.

The few that get by

The sites which seem to come closest to offering an online film festival submission service (such as Short film Depot) don’t list any US or Canadian festivals. Seeing as almost three quarters of all film festivals are based in North America, I can only assume that this is the result of Amazon enforcing their US patent.

Withoutabox 2007 vs 2013

In 2007 the Withoutabox homepage included the following manifesto: Withoutabox in 2007

The Declaration of Independents. With this revolutionary suite of online tools, Withoutabox declares all members of the film community to be free from restrictive distribution channels. Withoutabox grants the power to simply and economically manage the entire process — from production to festivals to distribution to connecting with fans — and the inalienable right to enjoy all artistic and financial rewards to which one is entitled. Go forth, Withoutabox

Six years later, when I asked film festival directors for their thoughts on Withoutabox the following response was typical:

Withoutabox is the ugliest monopoly in the festival scene, and they keep your entry fees artificially high. Before a festival has even received a single submission, they’ve already spent thousands on Withoutabox for basically an entry system that hasn’t significantly improved in years.

And all because they have patent US6829612. When you can prevent all competition, why try harder?