I wrote last year about Hollywood’s getting its collective nose out of joint over CleanFlicks, a service that shaves the titillating edges of popular culture so that parents and children with different standards from those of Hollywood can enjoy that institution’s estimable output without mutual embarrassment. It sounds like a copyright / creative freedom dispute; it’s really a battle in the culture and money wars. As I wrote then (I’ve added the words in brackets just now):
But the cultural issues being played out here are at least as interesting as the IP issues. There are people out there who want to see Titanic and who are even comfortable with a pretty young woman in a corset on the screen, just not a buck naked one. This is considered heresy, fundamentalism, in Hollywood. Hollywood’s art demands nudity at this juncture (I guess; I didn’t see the movie). Here the market [or part of it] is screaming, put a shmatteh on the young lady and we’ll rent your video — and this, Hollywood finds offensive.
Now, however, a court has agreed with the producers (which I do not find surprising) and not only ruled in their favor, but (rather arrogantly) has declared CleanFlicks’ very business “illegitimate.” CleanFlicks has “vowed to appeal,” as they say.
The issues are discussed in an insightful article in Reason Online, which correctly urges, among other things, that this outcome is a continued distortion of the meaning of intellectual property:
There is only unauthorized editing whenever a piece of culture is put in front of an audience. The individuals watching in the darkened theater, the family room, or on a computer screen are constantly making choices, skipping over stuff, misinterpreting things, and more. The audience, alas, has a mind of its own, and that mind doesn’t care about the creator’s intentions.
Hollywood, of course, still has a ton of clout with audiences and, more important, with lawmakers and gadget makers. But the old model, in which a producer produces and an audience passively consumes culture, is over. To be completely honest, that old model was never the way culture worked anyway, but even the pretense of full artistic control is finished in today’s environment, in which individuals have an ever-increasing ability to produce and consume culture on their own terms.
The breakdown of that old model has been seen most clearly in the music industry, where unauthorized file-sharing programs such as Napster and Grokster allowed listeners to easily de-bundle albums forced on them by artists and record labels alike. For all the discussion about the legal issues surrounding file-sharing, the truly important element was the way it shifted power from producers to consumers, who in turn became their own producers of content by the mere act of creating personal playlists. From this perspective, file-sharing was simply another in a long line of technologies — cheap cassette-tape decks, for instance, not to mention sampling programs that facilitate mash-ups and more — that have brought the artist down from on high and placed him right next to his audience. When it comes to film and video, a host of technologies, including VCRs, remote control, and Tivo, have radically altered the terms of consumption.
As for the case just decided in Denver: I have no problem with gratuitous nudity (is there any other kind in a movie?), foul language, and graphic violence; but I’m squarely on the side of the easily offended CleanFlicks’ customers. They are doing precisely what technology is there for: to create the sort of art, music, video, and text that an individual or group of individuals wants to consume.
The appeal should be interesting, but increasingly we’re arguing over rent-seeking and legal rules, not what’s really going on out there.
UPDATE: Comment on this article at Dean’s World.
UPDATE: Learned discussion at Patry’s blog.