Warning: This DVD Contains No Sex

Software that removes offending images and language from movies faces a court battle

Should you have the right to watch movies in the privacy of your home -- with the naughty bits cut out? Digital technology makes it possible to create software that filters out strong language, sex, and violence in DVD films. But in yet another of the endless battles over digital rights, directors and studios are trying to halt on-the-fly alteration of their work.

A Salt Lake City startup called ClearPlay Inc. has created software filters for hundreds of movies -- mostly recent ones -- including such hits as Goldmember and Minority Report. Currently, ClearPlay works only on movies that are played on a Windows PC. A $7.95 monthly subscription (a free 30-day trial is available at www.clearplay.com) gives you access to all the filters: You supply the DVDs. The software detects what disk is in the drive and loads the right filter file. The company plans to market a ClearPlay-equipped stand-alone DVD player later this year.

ClearPlay editors review the movies and decide what items should be skipped during replay -- from the muting of a single word to the omission of entire scenes. The result: anything from brief gaps in a soundtrack to peculiar jumps that can render sizable chunks of a movie incomprehensible.

The standard for offensive language is rigid. Take Robert Altman's Gosford Park. In it, a valet, describing his master, says: "He thinks he's God almighty. They all do." The first sentence in this description is excised, leaving just: "They all do," which makes no sense on its own. Violence is a lot more acceptable, provided it's not too gory. In the mob comedy Analyze This, bodies with neat, clean bullet holes are allowed to pile up -- and ClearPlay oddly rates the edited version as being violence-free. The attitude toward sex is reminiscent of the old Hollywood Production Code: Anything explicit is cut, but even heavy-handed innuendo survives.

One difficulty with the system is that the ClearPlay DVD player software is not very good. The program offers no straightforward way to get to a DVD's menu for features other than the movie itself -- such as picking a chapter from a table of contents. Worse, I found the player often locked up when I tried to fast-forward or rewind. You can, however, turn the filtering off by supplying a password. One unusual feature of the player: a fine tuner for the timing of the deletions because the cuts are based on the DVD's time code, which not all PCs handle accurately.

The future of ClearPlay, however, depends more on legal maneuvering than software quality. The tale starts with another Utah startup called Clean Flicks, which, instead of providing filters, actually sells and rents cleaned-up movies on tape and DVD. Clean Flicks gets around the obvious copyright problem by buying one legal copy for each one it sells. But the directors' and studios' case rests on a different argument: The law prohibits altering a protected work without the permission of the copyright holder. The case, now in discovery in federal court in Denver, was later extended to include ClearPlay.

Although it is a single case, the situations are different. I think Clean Flicks clearly violates the ban on the creation of unauthorized derivative works. ClearPlay argues that because the editing doesn't actually remove any part of a movie -- it skips over or mutes offensive scenes -- they've done nothing illegal. The same issue has been raised in TV studios' case against SONICblue's ReplayTV (SBLU ), in which the studios claim that automatically deleting commercials on playback constitutes creation of a derivative work.

In the ClearPlay case, the complaints have some validity -- because I'm sure the bowdlerized and often choppy movies that the filters generate are nowhere close to what the directors had in mind. But I would be more sympathetic to the plaintiffs' worries about the artistic integrity of the work if they didn't license them to be chopped up to make room for commercials on television or cleaned up for showing on airplanes and elsewhere.

In the end, though, it's hard to tell who is injured if people watch mangled movies in the privacy of their own homes. I wouldn't choose to do it, but I can't see why others shouldn't have the right.

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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