Wednesday, November 17, 2004

FINAL CUT CleanFlicks and ClearPlay, a pair of companies that play the role of censor for dvd viewers looking to avoid objectionable content, are at the heart of a story that's been developing under the radar for the last couple years.

It's a story of special interest to artists, cinephiles, tech enthusiasts and intellectual property law junkies. So that ought to cover just about everybody who reads this blog.

CleanFlicks is a video store chain and online outlet that edits movies to remove "offensive" bits, catering to consumers who want to watch edgy movies, but would prefer to skip the sex, violence and profane language. The company performs its editing without the permission of the studios that market the dvds.

Its business model is repugnant on a whole bunch of levels:

CleanFlicks makes copies of movies without authorization; it alters copyrighted works against the wishes of copyright holders; and it has the arrogance to mess with classics like TAXI DRIVER and THE GODFATHER, and to profit from it.

Still, if what CleanFlicks does is repugnant, it isn't repugnant in any particularly interesting way: The company has been sued by the Directors Guild of America, and I'd be shocked if it didn't ultimately lose its battle in the courts.

ClearPlay, however, is a different story. Instead of censoring dvds outright, the company adopts a more sophisticated approach:

Movies are screened, and potentially objectionable content is flagged and categorized by the company; a software "filter"--a kind of temporal map of naughty moments--is created; viewers who have purchased a ClearPlay dvd player order the filter for the movie they'd like to watch and upload it onto their player.

When the consumer pops in the dvd (which they've acquired from NetFlix or anywhere else) that corresponds to the filter in question, the dvd player will scan past objectionable moments and mute objectionable words.

And using ClearPlay, the viewer gets to decide just what "objectionable" means. According to an e-mail from Jeff at ClearPlay customer support, the following filter settings are offered

1. Strong Violence: Filters excessive or repeated violence, including fantasy violence.
- Strong Fantasy/Creature Violence
- Strong Action Violence
- Sustained/Repetitious Violence
- Crude Comic Violence

2. Graphic Violence: Filters brutal and graphic violent scenes.
- Brutal/Fierce Violence
- Graphic/Bloody Violence
- Rape/Rape Scene
- Torture

3. Disturbing Images: Filters gruesome and other disturbing images.
- Macabre Images, Dead/Decomposing Body
- Bloody/Horror Imagery
- Gruesome/Disturbing Imagery

4. Sensual Content: Filters highly suggestive and provocative situations and dialogue.
- Sensual Dialogue/Situation
- Provocative/Revealing Clothing
- Provocative Innuendo

5. Crude Sexual Content: Filters crude sexual language and gestures.
- Crude Sexual Word/Dialogue
- Crude Sexual Action/Gesture
- Crude Sexual Innuendo

6. Nudity: Filters nudity, including partial and risqué art nudity.
- Rear Nudity
- Topless/Front Nudity
- Partial Nudity/Veiled Nudity
- Nude Photos/Art

7. Explicit Sexual Situation: Filters explicit sexual dialogue, sound and activity.
- Sex Scene
- Sex Related Sounds
- Sexually Explicit Actions/Images/Dialogue

8. Vain Reference to Deity: Filters vain or irreverent reference to God or a deity.

9. Crude Language and Humor: Filters crude language and bodily humor.
- Crude Scatological Word/Sound
- Crude Scatological Image

10. Ethnic and Social Slurs: Filters ethnically or socially offensive insults.
- Racial Slurs
- Social Slurs

11. Cursing: Filters profane uses of hell and damn.

12. Strong Profanity: Filters swear-words, including strong profanities.
- B*stard
- B*tch
- A**
- Sh*t
- G*d D*mn
- Middle Finger

13. Graphic Vulgarity: Filters graphic vulgarities,
- f- word, graphic vulgarities

14. Explicit Drug Use: Filters vivid scenes of illegal drug use.
- Drugs being used in a vivid/graphic manner.
Each of these filtering parameters is operated independently, so any combination of settings can be selected, giving the viewer a wide range of discretion.

So: Is there any substantive ethical difference between what CleanFlicks and ClearPlay are doing? I'm not sure, but I'm inclined to think that there is. The fact that ClearPlay's technology leaves the dvd itself intact seems like a distinction with at least some importance.

(On the other hand, ClearPlay's legal footing remains uncertain: A bill called the Family Movie Act, aiming to carve out an explicit copyright law exemption for dvd filtering software, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee by a vote 18-9 earlier this year. It is likely to be revived during the next congressional session.)

Either way, though, the more salient difference between CleanFlicks and ClearPlay is on the practical level: It's easy for the government to shut down a business like CleanFlicks that trades in unauthorized copies of copyrighted material. (It may be impossible to stop pirating, but as the folks at Napster learned, it's not difficult for the government to ruin a business model predicated on it.)

But preventing the proliferation of filtering software seems like a far dicier proposition, if only because of the convergence of filmmaking, computer and home entertainment technology. In the end, ClearPlay may or may not survive as a business, but filtering software will almost surely continue to exist.

Of course, filmmakers worth their salt, and particularly those with Hollywood clout can--and probably should--demand that studios respond by developing technology to block such filtering. But whether Hollywood is willing to alienate a substantial segment of the public by going to the mat on this issue remains an open question.

Much more on this issue in the coming weeks.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.