David blogs about the ruling against CleanFlicks, which deals with the legality of sanitizing movies without the blessing of the movie studio. He makes some good points. This was also discussed once on Slashdot, and again. I want to chime in here and explain why I think this ruling is wrong.
OK, maybe not why it's legally wrong, per se, but why it's bad. I'm not going to shed a tear for CleanFlicks. Seeing a self-righteous moralist get his comeuppance is always something that I take a perverse pleasure in (unless it's me). But this wasn't a case of CleanFlicks downloading a movie, editing it to take out the naughty bits, and selling thousands of copies. Rather, they are a Netflix-like service that loans you edited movies to watch. As I understand it, for every copy of a movie that they edited, they bought a legal copy of the movie. The studios weren't deprived of a dime. Piracy really isn't an issue here.
Rather, the whole issue is is about control. Who controls what we can watch, under what circumstances, and what choices we have regarding it.
You see, I've basically done the same thing that CleanFlicks did. When David, Jon, Billy and I saw Showgirls (and much fun was had by all), by general consensus of the group, we decided to skip over one unpleasant scene in the movie. Zip, we basically went by it as if it weren't there. David says, "If they don't want to watch [a movie] as it was released, then they shouldn't watch it at all." Except that's exactly what we did. If we didn't want to watch a movie with a violent rape scene in it, we didn't have to rent one, but we did, and we wanted to watch the movie without that scene. In this case, we were the self-righteous moralists.
There is of course the legal issue that CleanFlicks was a for-profit venture, and that there were copies being made. Nevertheless, I still think that this ruling is bad for consumers, because it allows someone other than me to decide what I may and may not watch. If, instead, we wanted to hire someone to hold the remote control and fast-forward through the unpleasant scenes in the movie, I suggest that would have been our right to do so, as well. There actually is a service that basically does that, albeit through technological means. It's called ClearPlay, and they, too are being sued by Hollywood. (The lawsuit may have been made moot by a 2005 law; I'm not sure.)
If you think fast-forwarding through a movie scene is different from a copy with the scene edited out, and that this will always be possible, you may be wrong. The next generation of DVRs may not be able to fast forward through commercials. Not because they can't, but because you will not be allowed to. Someone else will decide for you what you may and may not skip. It has also been suggested that digital TV users not be allowed to change channels during commercials.
DVDs already have this feature. Frankly, it pisses me off when I watch a DVD and have to sit through the "opinions expressed in the commentary on the disk are not the opinions of the idiot movie studio" warning, then the movie rating screen, then the FBI warning saying they'll come kill my family if I copy the movie, then the Interpol warning saying the same thing, and then the fucking Interpol warning in fucking French. All of these are unskippable. But maybe it's OK because those are legal warning? Well, no. I understand that Disney is fond of putting unskippable advertisements, sometimes ten to fifteen minutes long, in front of a DVD. How long until some studio decides that an obnoxious product placement should be unskippable?
Copyright started out as a way to ensure innovation in creative works. It is not a natural, innate right of a person. It is intended to ultimately benefit society, not the artist. It was limited in scope and in time. You were expected to live out the copyright on your works. Now, copyright has been extended to the point where an artist's children may not live long enough to see his work enter the public domain. It has not changed to keep up with the changing nature of our now-digital world. And I think that's to the detriment of us all.