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Naughty Bits

A couple of years ago, a Utah company called CleanFlicks began to offer sanitized versions of popular Hollywood movies. The company took store-bought copies of the movies and removed the naughty parts—the swearing, the nudity, and the violence—and rented or sold them to a grateful Red State public.

There was lots of Blue State tongue clicking and headshaking about this, myself included. And a bunch of movie studios and producers (like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg) brought a lawsuit against CleanFlicks, alleging all sorts of infringements, desecrations, and other terrible things that CleanFlicks had committed against their art, their vision, their masterpieces. How could a bunch of prissy, fundamentalist fanatics be allowed to brazenly hack up their films?

The CleanFlicks case has been quietly stuck in litigation hell ever since it started; meanwhile, CleanFlicks has been allowed to stay in business. Numerous other competing businesses have popped up as well, offering movie cleansing software and services to that spooky, unblinking, but apparently significant portion of the country who want to see blockbuster Hollywood movies, but don’t want to see titties, blood, and gay people, and really don’t want to hear the F-word. Or the S-word. And probably not the D-word, either.

A few weeks ago, God told Congress to pass the Family Entertainment Copyright Act, and Congress, of course, did it. And our president, also following orders from the Higher Power, signed the FECA into law, and now it is explicitly legal to own a device that takes the naughty bits out of movies, Lord be praised.

All liberal irony aside, in my opinion, the FECA is the law and it is good. The evangelical jihad has unwittingly done us all a big solid.

A few weeks ago, the Bravo network ran a special titled Bleep! Censoring Hollywood, decrying the FECA. It was utter nonsense. Rubbish. The FECA has nothing to do with censorship. Only the government can censor; nobody is forcing an individual to watch a movie with some parts clipped out. It’s purely a matter of individual choice. The Berkshire Eagle ran an ominous editorial accusing the religious right of turning entertainment into “agitprop for its own narrow tastes,” and of attempting to deprive us all of “livelier, racier fare.” The Eagle should have known better. The cultural sky may be falling, but the FECA isn’t the reason. Here’s why:

What the FECA allows is for people to use editing devices to alter copies of movies they already own. It does not allow anyone to manufacture new copies. Even CleanFlicks sells and rents only edited versions of authorized, store-bought copies of movies.

Even without the FECA, this is legal under a provision of the Copyright Act called the “first-sale doctrine.” Once you have bought a legitimate copy of a copyrighted work, the law allows you to do pretty much anything you want with your copy. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Think about making mix tapes of songs from CDs, crossing out passages in a book, or tearing out the pages of a magazine. Think about cutting and pasting. The first-sale doctrine is a cornerstone of what copyright guru Larry Lessig calls “remix culture.”

The FECA merely reinforces the freedoms guaranteed by first-sale doctrine, and cuts off the industry challenges to the CleanFlicks of the world threatened by those freedoms. This is not an issue of censorship and decency, however much Hollywood and Big Media would like you to think so. This is about the first-sale doctrine, which Hollywood, Big Media and the software cabal hate and would love to dismantle. This is all about corporate control of copyrighted works, and ongoing attempts by the increasingly consolidated information industries to virtually hang out in your living room and in your computer and tell you what to look at and what to listen to. And for once, Big Media got beat, and we all have the fanatical religious right to thank for this small but stunning victory! How weird is that?

It comes down to this: James Cameron and Steven Spielberg have no more right to tell you how to watch their movies than Steve Leon has to tell you how you should read Metroland. Go ahead, throw out the adult supplement. Or don’t.

It occurs to me that there is a small fortune to be made by using the reciprocal of the CleanFlicks technology and the reinforced freedoms of the FECA to create a program that would edit out the “plot development” parts from porn films. If you run with that, please cut me in for 10 percent.

And to those film directors, the auteurs who are whining that the FECA will hasten the desecration of their precious art, vision, and masterpieces, I got one word for you:

Gigli.

 

Paul C. Rapp is an intellectual-property lawyer with offices in Albany and Housatonic, Mass. He teaches art & entertainment and copyright law at Albany Law School. Contact info can be found at www.paulrapp.com.


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