Death of the Auteur

Film filtering freedom.


HAMLET without the prince may not make much sense, but it's legal. In April Congress passed the Family Movie Act, which established that filtering movies to remove sex or violence or profanity–or any other bits you don't like–doesn't run afoul of copyright laws, as long as no fixed copy of the filtered version is created.

The bill was passed as part of the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act, which includes some rather draconian measures aimed at cracking down on bootlegging. (If you're caught videotaping a movie at a theater, for example, you can now be charged with a federal crime and imprisoned for three years.) The filtering measure, though, is an entirely different matter. It is meant to protect companies like the Salt Lake City?based ClearPlay, which provides a kind of home bowdlerization service for subscribers. Load ClearPlay's filters into a compatible DVD player, and you can customize your viewing experience, automatically muting or skipping scenes containing content you find offensive–or at least don't want the kids to see.

One might expect the movie industry to look upon ClearPlay as a boon that will encourage skittish parents to widen the range of films they'll consider purchasing. But Hollywood fervently opposed the Family Movie Act. The Directors Guild of America announced in a statement opposing the bill that "directors have great passion about protecting their work…against unauthorized editing." Jack Valenti, then head of the Motion Picture Association of America, warned Congress in 2004 that the law would allow people "to skip every part of the movie except the violent scenes; to remove any reference to, say, interracial dating."

ClearPlay CEO William Aho doesn't think that's a problem. "If it's my right to filter something in my home," he says, "it's got to be independent of what my particular ideology is. You could say the same thing to the movie industry: If we let you make any kind of movie you want, some people might make anti-Semitic movies, so you need to get congressional approval."

Perhaps directors fear being shown up by their fans. George Lucas' strange compulsion to worsen his older Star Wars movies is matched by certain viewers' ardor to improve his more recent ones: A spate of fan edits of The Phantom Menace circulate on the Internet, and many regard them as distinct improvements over the original.?