Making Movies “Clean” (2005 Oct)

by Barry A. Liebling

When you purchase a DVD movie what have you bought? Two industry groups have diametrical, bitterly conflicting opinions about this. On one side are television and movie producers intent on protecting the artistic integrity of DVDs. Opposing them are members of the “clean movie” business whose mission is to change the content of what their customers see on DVDs.

Some consumers who like movies find themselves in a dilemma. They want to see the latest Hollywood offerings, but they are uncomfortable viewing movies that contain what they regard as offensive language, sexually explicit scenes, and graphic violence.

This consumer desire fuels companies that have various ways of delivering a “clean” viewing experience where coarse words and vexing scenes are eliminated. Not unexpectedly, many producers, including the Directors Guild of America, have objections to these activities and assert that they violate property rights. The legal battles are likely to go on for years between movie makers and those who are commercializing “movie cleaning” businesses.

How the legal proceedings will turn out depends on the efforts of intellectual property lawyers. My interest is in the ethical issues raised by the “movie cleaning” controversy.

The fundamental questions at stake are the boundaries of property rights. It is interesting to note that the conceptual issues that apply to buying, selling, and modifying DVDs are parallel to those that apply to books. Both DVDs and books have the distinction of being both physical objects and intellectual property.

Suppose a consumer with delicate sensibilities buys a DVD and watches it at home with a friend who has seen it previously. The friend instructs the consumer to put on the mute or to fast-forward the movie from time to time which effectively shields the consumer from offensive content. While the original producer of the DVD intended it to be seen in its entirety the consumer has the right to skip over any part – even as someone who buys a book is not obligated to read it all the way through.

The friend can be replaced by a machine. Some companies, notably Clear Play, sell filtering software that is customized for each DVD and eliminates objectionable words and scenes. The software does not modify the original DVD. Instead it mutes and skips to spare the viewer. Using this type of product does not violate the rights of the DVD producer.

An alternative to using a software filter is to edit the original DVD. The consumer can physically cut the parts out that he does not want to see or hear. If a consumer buys a DVD, does all the editing by himself, and keeps the modified movie for his own use, he is within his rights. This is parallel to buying a book, cutting out some of the pages, and keeping it within your own library.

The consumer who wants an edited DVD might hire someone else to do it for him. There are companies, including Family Flix, that will take a DVD owned by a consumer, edit out the offensive scenes, and return the abridged version. In this case the company is not selling a DVD but is modifying a copy owned by the consumer.

Now where might a “clean movie” company go astray? It is not permissible to make and sell products that do not legitimately belong to you. There are companies that buy theatrical DVDs, edit them, and sell or rent the “cleaned up” versions. These companies are creating a new product, and the problem is that most of the creative content is intellectual property that belongs to the original producer of the DVD. Think of books. It is not acceptable for you to buy my book, edit it to your liking, and then sell the new book without my permission. Some representatives of companies in the business of selling “cleaned up” DVDs have argued that they have not materially changed the original DVD – only eliminated some non-essential parts. But in fact they have fashioned a DVD that is significantly different from the unedited version – using material they do not own. The newness of the product is demonstrated by the fact that the company’s customers are willing to pay a premium price for the “clean movie.”

If consumers want to see DVDs that have been purged of offensive words and scenes they can do so without violating the rights of the original producer. Companies in the “movie cleaning” industry – that boast of their focus on morality – should be careful that their own business practices pass the test of moral decency.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

Comments are closed.