DVD-editing companies close instead of appealing ruling

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (BP)--Two companies that "sanitize" DVD movies of objectionable content have chosen to close their businesses instead of appealing a federal judge's ruling against them.

CleanFilms and CleanFlicks had found a market among Christian and conservative families in recent years by renting and selling R, PG-13 and PG rated movies with the profanity, nudity, sexual dialogue and graphic violence removed. The Utah-based companies maintained they were within legal boundaries under the "fair use" doctrine because they maintained a 1-to-1 ratio on movies -- for each DVD they rented or sold, an original version of the same title was purchased.

But Hollywood studios and directors filed suit, and on July 6 U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch ruled that the companies were "illegitimate" and violating copyright law, and that their actions caused "irreparable injury to the creative artistic expression in the copyrighted movies."

The ruling leaves ClearPlay -- a Utah-based company that produces a DVD player with filters to edit movies -- as the only option left for families wanting cleaner movies. The ruling doesn't apply to ClearPlay, whose product is significantly different from the other companies.

Troy Romero, an attorney who represented CleanFilms and CleanFlicks, said three factors led his clients not to appeal: financial costs of an appeal; the time involved; and the judge's "strongly worded" ruling.

"There is a huge cost that's associated with fighting the studios and directors," Romero told Baptist Press. "They're Hollywood, and my clients are small, little privately owned companies. The projection was that it could take somewhere between four to six years to get this ultimately resolved. That's a huge amount of time and uncertainty."

Although Romero could not comment because of confidentiality, CleanFilms and CleanFlicks apparently reached an agreement with the studios and directors that allowed them to sell their remaining inventory of DVDs. Although the judge ordered the companies to hand over their inventory, both CleanFilms and CleanFlicks are having going out of business sales through their websites. According to a letter sent to customers, the businesses can no longer rent or sell DVDs after Aug. 31.

"We want to offer our sincerest apologies for not being able to provide you with edited DVDs after August 31," the letter reads. "We appreciate your support of our efforts to provide high-quality, family-friendly movies, and we will try to make this difficult process of closing our operations as painless as we can for all our loyal customers."

The editing companies allowed families to watch movies they otherwise would have avoided -- for instance, "Titanic" without the nudity, sexuality and profanity. CleanFilms and CleanFlicks had a Netflix-type rental service providing customers the ability to rent movies through the mail. Both companies offered the latest movie titles.

The lawsuit also put other DVD-editing companies out of business along the way. One of those, Family Flix, posted a statement on its website last year saying they were closing after five years in business.

"It is our intention to follow Hollywood's advice of 'don't like it, don't watch it,' and go one step further by creating the largest motion picture studio outside of Hollywood," the statement, by Family Flix' Richard and Sandra Teraci, read. "We will be creating blockbuster films with top-level actors. Films you'll love, but won't have to cover your children's eyes or ears, or as an adult, not having to be subjected to someone else's low standards."

The lawsuit was filed by eight studios -- DreamWorks, MGM, Time Warner, Sony, Walt Disney, Universal, 20th Century Fox and Paramount -- and a host of directors, including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.

“As creators of films, we oppose giving anyone the ability to alter in any way they choose, for any purpose, and for profit, the content of a film that we have made, often after many years of work,” Michael Apted, president of the Directors Guild of America, said in a statement. “Directors put their skill, craft and often years of hard work into the creation of a film.... So we have great passion about protecting our work, which is our signature and brand identification, against unauthorized editing.”

Romero, though, disagrees with the legal arguments used by the Directors Guild.

"Consumers should be able to pick and choose what they want," he said. "They shouldn't have to take the objectionable material."

He compared CleanFilms and CleanFlicks to services such as Napster and iTunes that allow customers to download what songs they want without purchasing a host of CDs that include songs they don't want.

"With Napster and all that stuff, it's been determined now that the consumer should be able to pick and choose how they want their entertainment," Romer said. "And as long as [CleanFilms and CleanFlicks are] not hurting the studios and they're making money, that should be fair."

The studios made money off the services because people were purchasing and renting movies they otherwise wouldn't watch, Romero said. More than 3,000 customers wrote letters to the judge saying the companies' products were "important for [their] families," he added.

"If the copyright holder doesn't get hurt at all, and the public benefits, why wouldn't we allow that? I think the day will come when that will get recognized [as legal]," Romero said. "Somebody, someday is going to be able to prove that."

The aforementioned ClearPlay DVD player now likely will get more attention from families. At a cost of around $100, the player -- when combined with filters -- skips objectionable content in a movie. The filters "tell" the player what and when to skip. With 14 categories of objectionable content, filter settings can be customized.

Unlike CleanFilms and CleanFlicks, with ClearPlay the DVD is not physically altered; customers must rent or purchase the original version of the movie. The player comes pre-programmed with filters for hundreds of movies, and new filters are downloaded over the Internet to a USB flash drive.

Another DVD player, MaxPlay -- which uses ClearPlay technology -- allows the filters to be downloaded directly over the telephone and doesn't require Internet service.

A law protecting companies such as ClearPlay -- which originally was named in the Hollywood lawsuit -- was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush last year. The judge subsequently dismissed all claims against the company. In its statement following the judge's ruling, the Directors Guild of America said it "remains concerned about this exception to copyright protection."

Even though ClearPlay stands to gain business because the other companies are closing, ClearPlay CEO Bill Aho criticized the judge's ruling.

"While it may be good for ClearPlay Inc., it’s bad for parents," Aho said in a statement "Moms and dads need all the help they can get to protect their kids, and these companies were providing a valuable service."


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