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Your Handy Home Censorship Kit

A new device allows consumers to cleanse their DVDs of sex, profanity and violence. Directors and copyright holders call foul -- and the battle between moralists and filmmakers is on.
 
 
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Imagine watching When Harry Met Sally without Meg Ryan's orgasmic deli scene, or The Shining without Jack Nicholson uncovering the horrors of Room 237. Imagine watching The Godfather , only Jack Woltz never wakes to a bloody horse head.

To true cinephiles, the absence of such iconic moments might ruin these films completely. To directors and Hollywood studios, such modifications are gross violations of copyright laws and artistic visions. Yet to Bill Aho, CEO of ClearPlay, these classic scenes epitomize the kind of degenerate sex, violence and foul language of Hollywood entertainment that consumers should have the power to purge from their movies.

"It's really a matter of personal choice in your home," Aho told me. "Should you have the right to experience media your way, or should the preferences of the director follow you into the living room?"

Aho is not alone. Bowing to the growing number of Americans who demand "family-friendly" entertainment, President Bush signed the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act (FECA) a couple of weeks ago. On the whole, this legislation benefits Hollywood by making it a federal crime to videotape films in movie theaters. FECA also imposes stiff penalties of up to 10 years in prison for anyone caught distributing movies or songs prior to their commercial release dates. The part that has the Directors Guild of America (DGA) up in arms, however, is the controversial Family Movie Act.

"This exception to copyright protection," said DGA spokesman Morgan Rumpf, "could have far-reaching implications that cannot fully be comprehended today -- allowing third-party editing companies to change the political content of a film, to revise the historical record, to profit from abridged versions of films, and even to make versions of films that focus on violent and sexually explicit content."

In essence, this bill, which was tacked onto the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), completely legitimizes Aho's business. Moreover, it will soon nullify the lawsuit that the DGA, eight Hollywood studios, and over a dozen directors including Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh, and Robert Redford brought against ClearPlay in 2003.

Unlike companies such as Clean Films, Family Flix and Clean Flicks, which actually distribute bowdlerized versions of Hollywood DVDs (a clear-cut copyright infringement), ClearPlay sells DVD players with 14 built-in filters that are designed to mute or skip over foul language, nudity, violence and other "inappropriate" behavior in hundreds of commercial DVDs. What content will be expunged is theoretically left to the viewer's discretion. For example, if you load When Harry Met Sally and select the "Vain References to Deity" or the "Sensual Content" filters, you will skip right over Meg Ryan's ersatz, "Oh God!" orgasm.

Since the Family Movie Act allows imperceptible changes to "limited portions of audio or video content of a motion picture ... from an authorized copy of the motion picture," ClearPlay is now authorized to continue manufacturing its DVD players, which are available from their site as well as from that purveyor of all things wholesome, Wal-Mart.

By lobbying for the passage of the Family Movie Act -- Aho personally contributed a substantial amount of money to Lamar Smith's campaign in 2004 when the Act was still pending approval -- ClearPlay didn't merely dodge a hefty suit from the DGA. According to Professor Thomas Doherty, chair of the film studies program at Brandeis University, the impetus behind this legislation was clearly, "to protect and stroke a loyal Republican constituency -- but let's not construct it as a purely right-wing plot -- you don't see many Dems coming out against the right of private individuals, who legitimately purchase a copy of a DVD, from editing it. I think in another context the usual suspects would support the right, say, of an artist to monkey with the original after he paid for his own copy."

ClearPlay also managed to skirt the age-old issue of censoring Hollywood films by giving viewers the ability to self-censor in a way the fast forward button never could.

"As I understand it," said Doherty, author of Pre-Code Hollywood , "the wildcat editors want to censor material for themselves and their customers -- not for you and me. This is different from most previous efforts where the censor wanted to censor material for you and me."

In other words, a private company is seeking, albeit indirectly for legal purposes, to censor this material for its subscribers alone.

Most of these family entertainment companies, ClearPlay included, have emerged from Utah. As Aho said, "There is a concentration of families and religiously oriented people [in Utah], and I think that had something to do with the early video editing companies starting here." In a recent USA Today article, Jason Crop, who founded MovieShield technology, said of this cluster of companies that got their start at Brigham Young University, "I think what happened is the melting pot lent itself to these ideas. I think it honestly comes down to the Mormon culture. You don't watch R-rated movies, or you be very careful what you watch."

Mormon values aside, at the heart of this issue -- now that the government has disregarded concerns of copyright infringement with regards to ClearPlay -- is a battle between moralists and filmmakers who feel that their works are being compromised by this technology. In a statement from the DGA, Rumpf said, "As the creators of films, directors oppose giving someone the legal ability to alter in any way they choose, for any purpose, and for profit, the content of a film that a director has made, often after many years of work. Directors put their full vision and often years of hard work into the creation of a film. That film carries their name and reflects on their reputation."

In her recent remarks to the National Press Club, Brennan Center for Justice fellow Marjorie Heins said the Family Movie Act "raises interesting First Amendment questions, for its purpose and effect is to grant special legal protection to private censorship." The debate boils down to whether or not children watching these "family-friendly" versions of movies are really being protected from anything.

"Censorship under the guise of child protection," added Heins, "has traditionally been, and continues to be, a convenient excuse for not educating children--about media, critical thinking, and moral values."

Moreover, Heins asserted that making this material taboo only encourages children to seek it out on their own. Instead, Heins recommends "media literacy education," having parents discuss films with their children. The alternative, of course, would be not to watch a film if the content isn't deemed age appropriate.

"It's not an either-or," contended Aho. "It's like saying that if parents just talk to their kids about sex, you don't need condoms. We fully support parents talking to their children about the media, as well as teaching them about serious issues that could have a negative influence on them. But in addition to that, parents may well want the option to filter out some content in movies in their home. ClearPlay provides a tool that many find beneficial, that makes movies more enjoyable, or makes some movies more accessible."

The DGA believes the issue is far more complex.

"This legislation is about much more than giving consumers a choice in what they watch and don't watch," Rumpf explained. "Unidentified employees of electronic editing companies make the choices of what is edited out of each film they review -- it is their choices that govern and not the consumer's."

A crucial distinction is that while ClearPlay subscribers do have the choice of which filtered version of a film they want to see, it is still ClearPlay that is creating the filters. They do not edit the DVDs directly; their form of censorship is far more subtle. Rather than employing editors, ClearPlay relies on a team of "filter developers." As Aho explained, "We don't have any specific requirements for our filter developers. As it turns out, all are involved in movies, either as screenwriters, directors, editors, etc. Some have film degrees. But it's not a requirement. And yes, they all receive training from ClearPlay."

Another concern is how ClearPlay applies these filters across the board. For instance, Angels in America was given 22 parental advisories on the ClearPlay web site, including "Homosexual/Lesbian characters," "Implied Marital Sex," "Implied Premarital Sex," and "Implied Extramarital Sex," whereas Psycho received only three advisories: "Revealing Clothing," "Scary Moments," and "Murder Topic."

How can the former garner such a thorough review while the latter title, arguably one of the scariest psychosexual films of all time, be relegated to three somewhat vague warnings? Lastly, why did the government approve such technology when a ratings system for commercial films is in place and Hollywood already releases TV and airline versions of their own films, often at the command of the directors themselves? According to Doherty, "The people ... don't trust the director's [edited] cuts -- they trust each other."

As DVD sales continue to soar, not even the biggest names in Hollywood can stop companies like ClearPlay now that the legal way has been paved by Washington. Aho envisions ClearPlay technology as a standard option in movie-watching in homes across America. The only question remains whether the Family Movie Act will open the floodgates for other Utah-based companies that explicitly produce puritanical bootlegs. At the moment, that part of the DGA's suit is still pending.

Zack Pelta-Heller is a freelance writer living in Astoria, New York.