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Sector focus: media

Sector focus: media

Harriet Iles


Media is something that we, whether intentionally or unintentionally, engage with daily. From shuffling your Spotify playlist to waiting impatiently to skip past a YouTube ad – there are countless legal hurdles that players within the media industry must overcome to reach the public. But what does ‘media’ mean in this context? The sector is vast but predominantly relates to broadcasting, publishing, music, film and television, digital media, advertising and marketing. 

For a lawyer, the sector offers unique benefits. Working on a case so intensely beheld in the public eye can provide a thrill attractive to many. The nature of the client base, consisting of the occasional celebrity, can result in highly publicised legal issues in this sector. Johnny Depp’s libel case against The Sun was hard for anyone to miss. Even seemingly menial matters, such as a contractual dispute or checking that an advertising campaign is compliant with industry regulation, could launch the next television series to rival Game of Thrones

Although, the typical work of a media lawyer will not consist of Johnny Depp’s lawsuit. As with any especially high-profile legal issues, the day to day will be quite separate. Media law relates to what can and cannot be published or broadcast. Libel or defamation, privacy, and copyright and ownership issues are arguably the most salient, contentious matters – while non-contentious areas span from contractual drafting, competition and regulation to employment. 

Many top UK firms specialise in this sector, such as Bird & Bird, Bristows and Baker McKenzie. Due to the somewhat niche quality of media law, it is not uncommon for lawyers to work directly for companies and organisations as in-house counsel. 

What are some things I should know?

The media sector is among the most fast paced – changing daily, with time-critical issues and public reputations on the line. Lawyers must be commercially aware in the traditional sense but they must also be aware of the unique concerns that clients may have as public figures. As a young and dynamic sector, genuine enthusiasm and passion for media – not just a rounded commercial awareness – is hugely advantageous.

On the topic of industry developments, the acceleration of digital media due to the pandemic is the most salient. There is no better deal to reflect this, at least within the film industry, than the recent takeover of MGM studios by Amazon for $8.45 billion. This reflects a buzz of M&A in media over the past 18 months – especially true for Disney, Apple, WarnerMedia, Comcast and Discovery – as streaming platforms become ever more profitable. Jeff Bezos recently stated that out of the current 200 million Prime members, 175 million had watched its streaming content in the past year. Further, the pandemic’s lasting effect on cinema is exemplified by the rising prevalence of straight-to-streaming releases. In the past year, agreements have been struck between Universal and cinema chains AMC and Cinemark, allowing the studio to release films to streaming services weeks after their cinema debuts – in exchange for a cut of at-home sales.  

As a media lawyer, you could have a real impact on this shift. You could be advising on a proposed takeover of a streaming service by a legacy company (or vice versa) – conducting due diligence, checking licenses and intellectual property, or advising on contracts for company employees. In addition, the migration of film from cinemas to streaming services leaves a void for advertisers to fill – and media lawyers may be able to help these companies find new ways of reaching audiences by diversifying, investing and expanding in line with regulation. 

In a similar vein, most within the EU have felt the changing privacy and advertising regulation – particularly as we click ‘accept cookies’ for the millionth time. Although this has become an almost automatic task, it reflects one of the most important trends within the media industry of late – the regulation of online, targeted advertising. EU cookie law, also known as the ePrivacy Directive, seeks to gain active consent before ad-tracking cookies can be used to monitor an internet user’s activity. This has huge industry-wide implications, as cookies have, historically, been one of the primary tools that advertisers have relied on to target consumers. Advertisers will more than ever need to stay aware of emerging data and privacy laws protecting consumers – and how to ethically source data and ensure compliance will become increasingly difficult. This may give rise to more contentious cases between advertising companies and individuals or regulatory bodies. 

What you can do to build awareness 

As an aspiring lawyer, it is, first and foremost, important to stay on top of the changes within the industry. As emphasised in other posts, most resources for building your commercial awareness will be useful in building your general awareness. This is essential to provide the legal service that clients are growing to expect – one in which they can speak in technical terms about their line of work and receive advice that considers the sector as a whole. A simple way to do this is by following media cases or deals as they evolve, keeping tabs on trends in the industry and thinking about how clients’ legal questions are changing. 

Further, as the sector is so broad, it would be useful to narrow this down to a few choice areas that you’re interested in. Narrowing this area down is necessary to effectively stay on top of change and demonstrate your passion more clearly at the interview. Speaking eloquently about one niche area, rather than having an overly broad or shallow understanding of the industry generally, will get you far. In addition, as there is a great opportunity for early client contact in media law, a deeper and more specific understanding of certain aspects of media will allow you to engage in conversation with clients themselves much more easily!