“Clean” Media: A Debate Between Desire and Copyright Law
I’ve been thinking lately about the concept of “clean” media. As I understand it, it’s shorthand for work with “acceptable” levels (i.e., not much) sex, violence (although in America, this is less of a worry), and bad language. I’ve already hit on one problem with this concept: who defines what’s acceptable? But let’s proceed by assuming that we can generally agree on what makes something “family friendly”.
(Although that’s obviously not true. Whether or not, for example, a sympathetic or accepting portrait of a gay character should be flagged as potentially objectionable material is the first hot button issue that comes to mind. Another is showing an interracial relationship.)
I’m more concerned here with looking at things from an economic point of view. On the one hand, this is America, land of consumerism — if someone wants something, why not sell it to them? On the other, why do families want to watch a clean version of some of this junk? Taking out bad words and boobies isn’t going to make Hot Tub Time Machine, for example, something you want your kids to be able to watch. Is it about allowing kids to fit in because they can say they’ve seen, for example, Anchorman while still keeping them protected from naughty words? Or parents simply getting tired of their kids begging and pleading to have access to the same popular culture their friends are talking about?
Let’s look at some of the history. Edited versions of movies are commonly available on airplane flights and when movies finally air on network television, with their broadcast standards. But they haven’t been commercially available to customers, mostly due to copyright concerns.
A company called VidAngel wants to change that. (It is probably not a surprise that they’re headquartered in Utah.) First, they set up by selling their customers “access” to a library of DVDs. There was a strange legal dodge, as described here:
The company has a vault full of DVD and Blu-ray discs for a variety of titles. It also uses software to decrypt and create a digital master file that is then stored on the cloud along with digital markers that would allow users to filter out up to 80 different types of offensive or sensitive content.
When a subscriber wants one of these movies, they “purchase” one of the physical discs from VidAngel’s vault, but they don’t actually receive it. Instead, they are given access to the streaming video that they can then filter per their own desires. What’s more, the subscriber can then “sell” the disc back to VidAngel for $18 or $19, effectively meaning they paid $1 or $2 for streaming that title.
However, in 2016, the company was sued by Disney, Lucasfilm, Twentieth Century Fox, and Warner Bros., and a judge ruled that this was “reproducing and broadcasting content without permission.” VidAngel claims free speech and other rights on behalf of their customers, so they switched their business model to filtering Netflix and Amazon Video streams purchased by their audience, for a price of $7.99 a month. Which means they can now extend their service from movies to some of the hottest TV shows available on those services.
Similarly, earlier this year, Sony announced a Clean Version effort where someone who bought one of their movies from a streaming service would also get access to the broadcast TV version of the film as a “value added extra”. After an outcry from directors of those movies, and a declaration from the Directors Guild of America that they require director approval for this, Sony reversed course and dropped the effort.
There’s clearly a market for this kind of entertainment. Does the often-heard exhortation “if you don’t like what you’re offered, make your own” apply here? The religious market is increasingly targeted with film releases, but they tend to be heart-warming dramas, not the superhero movies or science-fiction spectaculars or raunchy comedies that have been argued about and sued over this year.
I think, though, that this debate is another variant of extreme individualism. We have so many ways to customize content — streaming services, browsing the internet for only the content we want to see — I think customers think “why shouldn’t people have movies exactly the way they want them?” Seeing the request that way tips me over to agreeing with the directors and movie creators that customers instead should take or leave the content.
I don’t think most comedies out today are funny, because I’m distracted by grossness and crudity, so I don’t watch those movies. I get squeamish with violence, so I haven’t seen the Netflix Daredevil series, although I’m interested in seeing how the character was translated. You have to make the tradeoff. If you want to see the movie, or allow your kid to see it, you should accept it as presented. VidAngel users are concerned about morality — I think it’s good for your moral development to realize you can’t always get what you want the way you want it.
On the other hand, particularly when we’re talking about the Sony case, those versions of the movies already exist. Another market is interested in them — why not sell them and realize some incremental revenue? Why aren’t the directors up in arms about airline edits? Is the fear that there would be so much interest in bowdlerized versions that directors would start facing pressure to tone down the bad words and stupid violence when they make future movies? (And really, the amount of “mature” elements in some of these much-praised “prestige” TV shows does lead one to wonder if creators, freed from restraint, went a bit overboard. How many Sopranos scenes really needed to take place in a strip club, anyway?)
I guess I still don’t know what I think should be done. If you’d like to read a more detailed treatment of this topic, this overview is excellent, going into more detail on legal precedents and other companies that have tried to build businesses for this market.