The Blessed Version


While directors and film studios have wrangled for decades over final cut, the advent of cheap and easy video editing technology may just wrest control from both parties and place it firmly in the hands of consumers.

At least that’s the hope of CleanFlicks, a Utah-based video store chain that sells and rents versions of Hollywood films from which all potentially offensive language, violence, and sexual situations have been carefully excised. This past August, the president of the Directors Guild of America, Martha Coolidge, announced that her organization would not allow anyone to tamper with its members’ creative visions and would fight to halt CleanFlicks (which has 70 stores across 18 states) from marketing sanitized versions of Hollywood films.

Anxious to clear up its legal status and convinced that a law-suit from the DGA was imminent, one of CleanFlicks’ franchisees in Colorado launched a preemptive suit on August 29 against 16 movie directors (including Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and Steven Spielberg), asking a judge to rule on the legality of the venture. The DGA promptly countersued them, along with a dozen other companies that sell or rent edited versions of movies (like Family Flix and Play It Clean Video), or sell movie-censoring hardware or software (like Family Shield, which sells MovieShield, a device that connects a DVD player and the television, using closed-captioning cues to automatically block offensive content).

Legal or not, this kind of manipulation is here to stay. It’s not just conservatives in Utah who are taking the knife to films: Enterprising fans are using their computers to alter films, too. The best-known examples are The Phantom Edit, a Jar Jar Binks-less cut of The Phantom Menace, and A.I.: The Kubrick Edit, a decidedly darker Stanley Kubrick-inspired version of the Spielberg movie. After poring over whatever notes and articles he could find to get an idea of what the legendary director might have done with the material, DJ Hupp, a filmmaker in Sacramento, California, changed the ending and clipped out about 30 minutes of what he thought were the film’s more sentimental and lighthearted moments. (Both fan edits can be found on peer-to-peer file-sharing networks like Kazaa and Gnutella.)

While fan editing is just catching on, there are hundreds of censored versions of Hollywood films already circulating in video stores. In an interview with the Voice, John Dixon, the president of CleanFlicks, argues that there’s nothing illegal about what his company is doing, and that it’s well within the rights of his customers (who don’t want any sex, violence, or adult language in their movies) to pay extra for someone to edit the videos for them. “We’re paying for these films up front,” he says. “For every single copy we send out we have to have the original, so the studios are receiving full payment.”

In any case, there’s a wider principle at stake here than censorship: whether or not people should be able to do what they want with their entertainment. “Once you create a product and put it out there for sale, you are essentially giving up your rights,” says Dixon. “You don’t own that copy anymore.”

Not surprisingly, the entertainment industry disagrees and is striking back. Anti-copying protections for CDs and DVDs are just the beginning. The MPAA and the RIAA are lobbying the government to require the technology industry to build anti-copying protections into every computer and consumer electronics device sold in this country. Media companies are so concerned about protecting their intellectual property that they may end up stopping activities that are perfectly legal, like ripping a CD into MP3s or programming TiVo to record The Sopranos.

CleanFlicks v. the DGA is just the latest in a long string of legal battles over technology and the future of entertainment: the Sony Betamax case that established the right of VCR owners to tape television shows and watch them at a later date; Gilbert O’Sullivan’s suit against rapper Biz Markie in 1991 that ended sampling without a license; and the recent spate of lawsuits against Napster, Morpheus, Audiogalaxy, and other file-sharing networks. Every advance in technology that has put a little more power into the hands of consumers engenders a negative reaction from an industry scared to death about not being able to control how, when, where, and what consumers watch or listen to.

Apart from the furor over sampling and the colorization of old black-and-white films, protecting creative intent hasn’t been as high a priority for the entertainment industry—the manufacture and distribution of illegal copies has historically been of greater concern. But now labels and studios are worried, given how easy it’s become for anyone with a moderately priced desktop computer and off-the-shelf software like Final Cut Pro and Pro Tools to cut up, edit, rearrange, rework, remix, or otherwise mess with other people’s work. With their intuitive point-and-click interfaces, these software programs turn editing a film or cutting up a song into something only slightly more complicated than using a word processor.

This kind of manipulation may be relatively new to the film world, but it’s been going on for years in music in the form of unauthorized remixing and sampling. The most recent permutation of this is the bootleg, or mash-up, which simply splices together the vocal track from one song with the instrumental track from another. Whether it’s a DJ creating a remix or conservatives splicing the nude scene out of Titanic, it all comes down to the same thing: someone doing something with a song or film that the creator never intended.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing, argues Siva Vaidhyanathan, an assistant professor of culture and communication at New York University and the author of Copyrights and Copywrongs: “We’re seeing massive empowerment at the ground level, the sort of empowerment that frightens the elite. It messes with artistic integrity, but allowing people to make their own artistic decisions in their homes can only help to deflate the artistic pretensions that guide too much of our gut reactions to copyright.”

In its complaint, the DGA charges CleanFlicks and the other defendants with, among other things, false advertising, trademark infringement, and dilution by marketing versions of Hollywood films that are not authorized by their creators. However, legal experts don’t believe that the DGA has much of a case. Paul Weiler, a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of Entertainment, Media and the Law, says, “There is a qualitative difference between someone making a whole host of free copies from the original, and someone making changes in a whole host of originals they’ve bought. [CleanFlicks] bought these copies, and if consumers want to use their computers to edit out something, clearly they have the right to do that.”

Should CleanFlicks prevail, an interesting precedent could be established in which anyone can do what they want with somebody else’s film or song and sell it to the public as long as there is one paid copy extant for each copy manipulated. The myth of creative control would be shattered, something that would legitimize the creative output of thousands who use the films and music of others as raw material for their own work.

Some sort of licensing system would save everyone a lot of trouble at that point, something CleanFlicks has unsuccessfully proposed to the movie industry. Short of an act of Congress, we’re unlikely to see the adoption of the simplest solution to the problem, even though the entertainment industry would make some extra money and audiences would get to see versions of movies or hear remixes of songs created by what would amount to a new class of consumer-producers. Either way, a win for CleanFlicks, which would initially appear to be a victory for censorship, may actually have the unintended effect of striking a blow for a far more radicalized notion of creative freedom.