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Who makes the cut?

July 11, 2006

HOLLYWOOD IS FAMOUSLY obsessed with all the forms and trappings of power, yet few are as coveted as the power to make the final cut of a film. That's one reason that 16 leading directors joined the major studios and the Directors Guild of America in suing a group of companies that dared to edit profanity, sex and violence out of movies without permission.

Last week, a federal judge in Colorado threw his weight behind Hollywood's final cut. District Judge Richard P. Matsch permanently barred four companies -- CleanFlicks, Family Flix USA, CleanFilms and Play It Clean Video -- from selling their bowdlerized versions of the studios' films. The judge ruled that the companies violated the studios' copyrights by creating, selling or renting the sanitized DVDs and videotapes.

The decision may seem like bad news for parents overwhelmed by the seemingly ubiquitous violence, profanity and sex in Hollywood movies. Such customers are mostly ignored by the studios, which often put out racier versions of a film on DVD but hardly ever a tamer one. But the decision of whether and how to tailor copyrighted works properly rests with the copyright holder, not entrepreneurs. One of the most important aspects of a copyright is the right to determine what a work is. For someone else to reedit and sell the work, with the same title, actors, story and themes, violates that right.

It's also worth noting that lawmakers carved out a way last year for tech companies to cater to profanity- and vulgarity-averse movie buffs without violating copyright law. Congress declared it legal to create software filters that automatically delete or blank out potentially objectionable scenes from DVDs, provided that the original disc remains unchanged. The new law led Matsch to dismiss the studios' and directors' claims against two firms that censor movies electronically, not physically. (The difference is that with the electronic edits, the original work is still available to be viewed in its unexpurgated glory.)

Although the ruling went the directors' way, it left the main question they posed unanswered. Because they don't generally hold copyrights to movies, directors in this case had to claim that they were harmed simply by being associated with unauthorized edits of their films. Those claims weren't addressed. One thing the judge did make clear, though, is that the studios can suffer even if they don't lose a dime in sales. The issue in this case wasn't money, after all; it was the sanctity of the final cut.

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