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Congress Weighs In on Movie Filters

(May 21, 2004) - At a Congressional hearing yesterday, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas threatened film directors and producers with unfriendly legislation if they do not quickly settle their lawsuit against companies that censor movies.

The companies, which include Cleanflicks of Colorado, ClearPlay, Inc., and Family Shield Technologies, are in the business of cutting, blurring, and bleeping out portions of videos and DVDs and then selling the mutilated products to consumers, including parents who do not want their children exposed to nudity, coarse language, or violent imagery. Some of the companies simply sell doctored films; others sell technology that, when installed on computers or DVD players, is pre-programmed to mute presumably offensive language and skip past scenes of nudity, sex, or violence.

The result, as written testimony submitted by the Directors Guild of America, explained, are botched films that are often thematically incoherent and that distort the substance and message of the work. In editing Steven Soderbergh's film Traffic, for example, one company removed critical portions of a scene in which the daughter of the White House drug czar begins

what will become a free fall into the abyss of drug abuse. Not only does this render much of the movie unintelligible, it completely undermines one of the key themes of the movie. ... The unauthorized editing of this movie minimizes the horrors of drug abuse.

Similarly, the smooth and stylish L.A. Confidential was rendered so "choppy and discontinuous" as to be "virtually unwatchable." A heavily edited Schindler's List removed "much of the Holcaust brutality, profane dialogue, and any scene deemed too disturbing in the judgment of the editor," with the result that "the edited version leaves viewers with a sanitized, inaccurate view of the worst abuses of Nazism."

In a lawsuit now pending in federal district court in Colorado, the Directors Guild and the major Hollywood studios allege that the unauthorized editing by these companies violates both copyright and trademark law. Settlement negotiations are ongoing, but Representative Smith, chair of the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property, does not think they are proceeding satisfactorily. As he opened the subcommittee's May 20 hearing on "Derivative Rights, Moral Rights, and Movie Filtering Technology," Rep. Smith announced that if the industry does not soon settle the suit, he will introduce legislation that specifically allows privately manufactured filtering products to censor copyrighted works.

Rep. Howard Berman of California objected vigorously. He described the threat to artistic freedom when creative works are distorted and mutilated to fit someone's "preconceived views," and said that Congress should not be interfering in and trying to influence the outcome of ongoing litigation.

Three witnesses were invited by testify by the Republican majority on the subcommittee: Joanne Cantor, Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin, Jeff McIntyre of the American Psychological Association, and Bill Aho of ClearPlay. Cantor and McIntyre both said that scientific research has shown media violence to be associated with a variety of adverse effects, while Aho focused on the desire of parents for his product.

The Democratic minority was allowed only one witness: FEPP's Marjorie Heins contested the claims of proven adverse effects from fantasy violence, urged media literacy education as a better way to address parental concerns, and warned of constitutional problems with legislation exempting censorware from the basic rules of copyright law.

Click here for Heins's testimony. The testimony of all the witnesses, and a Webcast of the hearing, is available at


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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