Will 'Seinfeld' and 'Friends' get between the US and Israel?

Senior American lawmakers, Ambassador Shapiro call on government, Knesset to pull initiative over intellectual property rights.

December 3, 2016 21:13
2 minute read.

The cast of the NBC TV series Seinfeld pose together in 1993. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Israeli leaders are used to receiving sharply worded letters and phone calls from US officials about settlement policy, but the latest cause of tension is about something entirely different: watching TV online.

Top US lawmakers and Ambassador Dan Shapiro protested to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and others against legislation that would allow free television channels to be broadcast online.

“If the Retransmission Bill becomes law, we fear it could create unnecessary friction in the important trade relationship between our countries,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Ranking Member Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Maryland) warned.

A spokesman for Knesset Economic Affairs Committee chairman Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union) said on Saturday night that he has no intention of postponing Sunday’s planned meeting on the matter or of separating the proposal from the lengthy Economic Arrangements Bill.

Such action would get more, in-depth attention from MKs, as Corker, Cardin and US House Committee on Foreign Affairs chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-California) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-New York) requested in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also holds the Communications portfolio. The letter was copied to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer.

Cabel has the ultimate authority to decide what his committee discusses or votes on and when.

The lawmakers’ concerns are about American television programming licensed to free broadcasting Channels 1, 2, 10 and others, which air popular syndicated shows such as Friends, Seinfeld and Law and Order, and would be shown online, without changes to licensing agreements or payments to owners of the rights to these programs and without ways to prevent transmission outside of Israel.

“This untested approach would set troubling precedents with global impact at a time when business models are still evolving in this area,” the senators’ letter states.

The bill could “have a significant impact on that market and impair intellectual property rights,” Corker and Cardin wrote.

Royce and Engel said that “US industry groups have expressed concerns that this proposal could lead to an escalation of copyright infringement in Israel and erode Israel’s progress on intellectual property rights protections.”

The representatives pointed out that in 2014, Israel was removed from the Office of the US Trade Representative’s list of countries with weak intellectual property rights protections, but that the office is still concerned about the matter regarding Israel.

“We fully respect the Israeli Knesset’s mandate to legislate in the best interests of the people of Israel,” they wrote. “However, we also note the US has substantial commercial interests in this issue, given the amount of entertainment content our citizens and companies create.”

All four lawmakers emphasized that they are friends and supporters of Israel and of strong ties between the two countries.

Shapiro wrote a similar letter to Kahlon following a meeting between the two men. Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor Kahlon’s office chose to comment.

Sources close to Cabel said that he examined the American’s complaints, as did the prime minister, Justice Ministry and Finance Ministry, and that the proposed law was “softened,” such that 80% of the concerns were taken care of.

However, the source did not detail what changes were made.

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