In Slate, Drew Clark takes a position contrary to intuition regarding the “clean” film debate:
- Cutting sex, violence, and profanity from movies is normally considered censorship. But if studios and directors like Steven Spielberg and Steven Soderbergh win a copyright suit against 11 small companies that permit consumers to avoid such scenes, free speech will be the loser, not the victor.
Most of the companies are based in Utah and offer families “clean” versions of popular films. Since they each use different methods for bypassing potentially offensive portions, the directors’ and studios’ claims against some are more legally compelling than others. Clean Flicks, for example, makes a master copy of Saving Private Ryan, editing out the bullet shots in the movie’s first battle scene. It then duplicates the revised version for rental or purchase by the “members” of its franchises. Another company, ClearPlay, creates a software filter or mask that is downloaded to a special DVD player. Once a consumer pops an unaltered Erin Brockovich DVD in the player, the software simply instructs the player to mute Julia Roberts’ foul language. Trilogy Studios of Salt Lake City takes this process one step further: Instead of skipping over the nude Kate Winslet posing for Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, its latest software tells the DVD player to display a picture of her body clothed with a corset.
….The tensions between moral rights and free speech can’t be avoided in the Clean Flicks lawsuit, where rival worldviews – copyright for “authors” versus copyright for “readers” – butt heads. Although the studios and directors charge all 11 companies with copyright and trademark infringement, the editing and filtering companies make different arguments in their defense. The Clean Flicks folks say they respect those copyrights by only making a single edited copy for each original video or DVD they purchase. Moreover, certain acts of copying can be excused under the “fair use” doctrine, which permits individuals and companies to make limited uses or noncommercial copies of others’ copyrighted works. But recent court decisions have limited businesses’ ability to claim “fair use” as a defense. In other words, it may be legal for a consumer to cut offensive scenes out of her own videotape, but illegal for a company to do it for her—even though Clean Flicks claims that it is merely offering a service for its “members.”
Clean Flicks makes a broader point, too: They say they just want to show their families movies free from offensive content and claim that studios secretly support them even if the directors don’t. In fact, it is possible that the studios were headed in that direction anyway. As consumers have flocked to the DVD format, studios have loaded on extra features like directors’ interviews, wide-screen versions, and even (in Moulin Rouge) alternate camera angles. Just as they offer versions edited for airline flights or TV broadcast, the studios could easily recut many R-rated films as PG-13 or PG and even release them on the same disc. The recording industry already sells edited songs with sexually explicit lyrics side-by-side with the unexpurgated versions. But in Hollywood, directors have so much power – and see themselves largely as European auteurs – that they resist multiple versions of their work even when the studios think it could make them more money. In the end, directors may just be hurting themselves. As the best-selling author and screenwriter Michael Crichton has said, “The smart move is to release the bowdlerized versions yourself and make the money. The dumb move is to fight it.”
….The current lawsuit is a harbinger of exactly what could be precluded if “moral rights” continue to grow on U.S. soil: Much less freedom to play with our cultural heritage. Viewed in a different light, a victory for either Clean Flicks or Trilogy and Clear Play could unleash considerable creativity. Take the “Phantom Edit,” an anonymous alteration of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace that cut 20 minutes from the film by deleting scenes with the universally annoying Jar Jar Binks. Traded widely on computer file-sharing services, the bowdlerized film would clearly run afoul of the current copyright law’s bar on preparing “derivative works.” And what a tragedy that would be. What about a software “mask” that instructs DVD players to simply skip over Jar Jar? Sounds pretty attractive, huh? Great things can be born from such small ideas.
I have to go along with the “censors” on this one.