Porn billing firm lures customers with promises of Hollywood movies

June 28, 2008

If you enjoy watching films online, then the front page of getfilmsnow.com might look an attractive place: the images there recently included X-Men: The Last Stand and Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror. In the weeks the Guardian has investigated it, the front page has boasted images from The Matrix, The Assassination of Jesse James , The Simpsons, Seinfeld and the 1942 classic Casablanca -- overall, the sort of films that may draw in young teens.

However, those promised titles don't amount to a hill of beans compared to what you'll find if you take the free three-day trial subscription: thousands of pornographic films or trailers. And worse, if you don't cancel the subscription promptly, your computer will fall victim to a series of popups, pointing out that you need to pay Platte Media for your use of getfilmsnow.
Does the latter sound familiar? Getfilmsnow is the latest site to use a popup billing system that first appeared in 2007, then run by Micro Bill Systems: it demanded money following users' access to pornographic websites. And this is the same model, run by a new company (Platte International Ltd) but with the same person -- Ashley Bateup, now chief executive.
But unlike the first incarnation -- which was explicit that you were getting billed for access to porn -- this one seems disingenuous about the sort of content it offers. And it is now planning to apply the same model to music, a move that has at least one analyst worried about its potential to upset would-be buyers of music online.
Now, the Guardian has learnt, getfilmsnow has been sent a cease-and-desist letter relating to images from Warner Brothers and Twentieth Century Fox films. And the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has indicated that the use of images for films that are not on the site may be in breach of unfair trading terms.
MBS came under the watchful eye of the OFT after complaints from people who insisted they had not realized that they were agreeing to be billed. In January, Bateup promised changes to the billing and access software (Porn bill firm opens new front, January 24).
The business was then acquired by Platte International. In March, MBS gave an undertaking to the OFT to change its business practices after a review of the sign-up process, the fairness of the terms and the automated billing. This struck a balance between ""protecting consumer interests without stifling innovation"" (OFT accepts undertakings from Micro Bill Systems Ltd).
The ruling also applies to Platte International, which operates through a specialist division -- Platte Media -- to provide consumer digital entertainment. Publicly available information says it has links to Leeds, Gibraltar, Austria, Holland, Essex and the British Virgin Islands, with a head office in Brazil. The company is backed by a wealthy Chinese investor (whom Bateup declines to name).
Though some consumers complain of being caught out by the popup bills from getfilmsnow.com, we found the installation process unmistakable: signing up involves a download, clicking through screens, and entering a four-digit number. But forget to cancel the trial, and a £29.99 bill for 30 days' subscription soon pops up. The software is difficult to remove, too. But where are the films? The Platte International website claims to have ""licenses in place with all of the major film studios and music labels"". But Twentieth Century Fox -- which owns X-Men: The Last Stand and The Simpsons -- says it ""has not licensed any of our products to Platte Media and our legal team is investigating the matter"".
WarnerBros., which owns The Matrix and The Assassination of Jesse James says: ""The content on the GetFilmsNow website is not licensed or otherwise approved,"" and hinted at ""ongoing legal issues"".
The Guardian also learned that Platte Media was sent a ""cease and desist"" letter regarding the images on its front page. The original images were then removed and replaced with Planet Terror, Pillow Talk, Casablanca and others, although the X-Men picture remained.
""It's ironic that they talk about the illegality of people removing their software, yet are misleading the public, using copyrighted materials for which they have no right to do so,"" says mbsvictims.org.uk, a support organisation which grew out of people outraged or angered by MBS's - now Platte's - billing methods.
So why use yet more pictures of films that are not available? Surely this is misrepresentation? ""No. It's not our intention to misrepresent at all,"" says Bateup. ""The reason that I don't think we're misrepresenting is that we don't advertise that page (getfilmsnow.com) at all."" But it is linked to from Platte International websites, indexed by search engines, and is visible to the world.
Bateup blames the missing films on delays in integrating the content and promises that the featured titles will be available. This seems a poor excuse for not ensuring that the photographs reflect the true content, as web pages are easily changed -- and Platte has changed it in response to complaints from film companies.
He also says the contract for the film content is with the British internet Broadcasting Company (BiBC) -- not, as Platte International's website claims, with all major film studios. This website also states: ""Platte International ... has recently partnered with BiBC Limited for additional music, video and audio book content from all of the major music labels and film studios."" But there is no partnership: ""BiBC does not have a contract with Platte International to provide film/video content for getfilmsnow.com,"" says managing director Paul Hague. (Source: Guardian)