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'Clean' gets scrubbed


'Clean' gets scrubbed

Ruling stops making of edited movie versions

In 1998, Sunrise Family Video, a rental outlet based in Utah, offered a version of Titanic with the steamy love scenes edited out. Filmmakers protested, but consumers responded with enthusiasm, leading to the establishment of edited-format film outlets such as CleanFilms, CleanFlicks, and Play It Clean Video.

Most of these businesses purchased one authorized (unedited) DVD for each modified film it distributed to individuals and video outlets. That way, the film's distributor reached a market it otherwise wouldn't have, consumers got to enjoy popular movies without the cringe-making profanity, nudity, or excessive violence, and everybody won.

Nonetheless a consortium of 24 big Hollywood names (such as Spielberg, Altman, Time Warner, and Paramount) filed suit in 2003. In July Judge Richard P. Matsch in Denver handed down a decision stating that family-friendly editing constituted "irreparable injury to the creative artistic expression in the copyrighted movies. There is a public interest in providing such protection despite the injury the infringers may sustain."

That injury is considerable: Co-defendants were ordered to cease distribution and return their inventory. CleanFilms complied, Family Flix had already closed its doors, and after promising to appeal, CleanFlicks announced that it did not have the resources to fight the ruling alone. Late in August, CleanFlicks too ceased operation.

Copyright law is notoriously slippery. The First Sale doctrine, for example, entitles a purchaser to do anything he wants with an imaginative work, so long as he does not make unlimited copies for resale. CleanFlicks, by maintaining a one-to-one ratio of authorized and edited copies, claimed legitimacy by right of First Sale. But the studios insisted their artistic integrity was hurt, not their bottom line. This seems a stretch, as the original intent of copyright law was to ensure adequate compensation, not "artistic integrity." And since movies are edited all the time for TV, the heart of Hollywood's objection is hard to discern. One sentence from the judge's decision may give a clue: "It is a question of what audience the copyright owner wants to reach." Could this be interpreted as disdain for Christian audiences?

ClearPlay, another Utah-based film outlet, stays in business because it distributes DVDs that allow the families themselves to screen material they consider objectionable. After passage of the Family Movie Act last year, such secondary censoring is legal. And it may be the future of family viewing, until Hollywood decides to clean up its act.