Sunday, July 16, 2006


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.

1 comment:

David said...

You write: "I understand that Disney is fond of putting unskippable advertisements, sometimes ten to fifteen minutes long, in front of a DVD." If they have, I've never heard of or encountered it. Their trailers do run immediately on launch and you must manually skip each one to get to the feature, but I've never heard of a DVD that forced you to sit through 15 minutes of trailers. If you have, I'd like to know the title(s).

The issue isn't simply control, or whether or not the studios got any money. It's about ownership, the right of an artist (actor, director, studio, etc.) to protect the product they paid or were paid to produce. If you decorate your apartment and I don't like it, do I have the right to come over and change everything? Of course not. If I'm really offended, I just won't come over. Same thing here.

We skipped the Showgirls rape scene because we wanted a lighthearted evening spent mocking a movie, and rape scenes are not mockable. Also, we made the decision as a group; I didn't make the decision and hit fast-forward against your protests. Skipping parts of a movie IS different than watching an edited version because you no longer have the option to watch or not to watch; the scene is gone, and someone else decided what you're allowed to see. Do you honestly want religious conservatives making those decisions for you?

By your argument, I could go buy a DVD, copy it (legally) to my computer hard drive, edit it in iDVD, burn the edited version to DVD, and then rent it to you... and I've broken no law? Of course I have. It's called the Copyright Law:

"The author of a work of visual art ... shall have the right... to prevent the use of his or her name as the author of any work of visual art which he or she did not create; shall have the right ... to prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation, and any intentional distortion, mutilation, or modification of that work is a violation of that right, and ... to prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation of that right."

By extension, I could also copy your blog post, edit out the parts I don't like, restructure to change your intended meaning, and repost it on my blog... and I've done nothing unethical? Being offended by something doesn't give you the right to change it — it gives you the right to avoid it.

Maybe you have to be an artist to understand the concept of someone changing — without your consent or knowledge — a work that you have struggled over, working meticulously to ensure that the experience will be exactly what you envision. To say this is simply a "control issue" that has no long-term ethical or social ramifications is, I think, to miss the point completely. This is about disrespect and distain for art, and ownership, and the law.