Video self-censoring services: VidAngel deleted (Best of 2017)

First posted August 25, 2017.

From Variety and really, all over your Internets:

The VidAngel filtering service will remain shut down, following a ruling Thursday from a three-judge panel upholding an injunction against the service.

VidAngel was forced to shutter its service in December, after U.S. District Judge André Birotte Jr. ruled that several studios were likely to succeed in their lawsuit claiming that the service violated their copyrights. The family-friendly streaming service filters out offensive language, nudity, and other objectionable content from mainstream movies. It does so without a license, contending that its service is exempt from copyright claims under the federal Family Movie Act.

Birotte disagreed, and on Thursday a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel upheld his injunction. The Family Movie Act requires that a filtering service use an “authorized” copy of the work in question. VidAngel argues that because it begins with lawfully purchased DVD copies — which it then decrypts and copies to a server — its service begins with “authorized” copies. Writing for the panel, Judge Andrew David Hurwitz made quick work of that argument.

“VidAngel’s interpretation would create a giant loophole in copyright law, sanctioning infringement so long as it filters some content and a copy of the work was lawfully purchased at some point,” Hurwitz wrote. “But, virtually all piracy of movies originates in some way from a legitimate copy. If the mere purchase of an authorized copy alone precluded infringement liability under the FMA, the statute would severely erode the commercial value of the public performance right in the digital context, permitting, for example, unlicensed streams which filter out only a movie’s credits.”

So be it.  I guess.  And I do mean guess, because I think this is a hard issue, although perhaps as a matter of policy, as opposed to law (the Copyright Act as written).

I have been troubled by the idea that you can’t buy a commercially-distributed video and run it through whatever the heck filter you want for your private viewing since I first wrote about the ClearPlay case way, way back in August of 2005.  (At right is a charming souvenir of what that post looked like in ancient times, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.)

This appears to be a cultural battle and not a legal one:  Creators are insisting that they have the last word about how the particular widgets with they part in exchange for money
will be enjoyed and consumers are, so far, kind of stuck with that.  Because widgets by artists (and software companies) are not to be confused with other things you can buy and then you own, no matter what the seller thinks.

And I admit there are a lot of moving parts here, even if they sometimes appear frozen solid:

As “Fearless Girl” was heralded by many as a symbol for female empowerment, Di Modica doled out sharp criticism, casting the statue as not art, but a publicity stunt by the gender-oriented company that commissioned it.

He forcefully advocated against a global campaign to make “Fearless Girl” a permanent fixture, but fans persevered, persuading New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to extend the statue’s permit through April 2018.

On behalf of his bull, Di Modica won’t back down.

The artist will hold a news conference Wednesday with attorney Norman Siegel, the former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, to explain his plans to challenge the city officials who let “Fearless Girl” happen without asking his permission.

“We’re all for gender equality,” Siegel told The Washington Post Tuesday night. “But the questions are because there are other issues.”

Yeah, bull statue artist guy, life comes at you fast, huh?

I admit it’s complicated.  After all, aren’t I against censorship?

Well, I’m certainly against you censoring me.

But me censoring me?  What — once I buy your stuff, I have to watch it your way?  Really?  Because art?

Maybe, actually. I said it’s complicated.

Anyway, I lost track of what happened with ClearPlay.  Evidently there was also something else in between it and VidAngel — quite a few things, as it turns out, with names such as CleanFlix, Clean Films, Flix Club, Movie Mask and Cougar Video.  When I saw this tweet by Bill Donahue about the VidAngel decision and decided to do this post, however, I was quite surprised to see that ClearPlay was still, or had until very recently had been still, doing something with something involving something.  This Variety story from February 2017 explains it, and brings the story charmingly full circle, actually:

The battle to offer clean versions of Hollywood movies to faith-driven consumers is getting even messier. ClearPlay, a Salt Lake City-based company, disclosed on Tuesday that it is no longer offering filtered versions of new releases through its streaming site.

A rival company, VidAngel, first noticed that the company had quietly stopped offering new releases, and drew attention to it in a news release. VidAngel has been fighting against the Hollywood studios, which claim that its service violates their copyrights. ClearPlay, which won a similar battle with Hollywood more than a decade ago, has been offering filtered versions of new movies through Google Play.

In December, the studios won an injunction ordering VidAngel to shut down. In that order, Judge Andre Birotte steered affected customers to ClearPlay, noting that the site operates with the studios’ blessing. Neal Harmon, the CEO of Provo-based VidAngel, said the discovery that ClearPlay is no longer offering new releases demonstrates that the industry is not open to filtering.

“There’s a federal law that says you can stream filtered movies,” Harmon said in an interview. “But today, there’s absolutely no way to do so. The studios got what they wanted.”

Yes, that happens.  A lot, in fact.

Batmobile copyright case
As I asked in that post, “Who says that just because Hollywood wants it, it should get it? Who says just because the logic is not all that bad, maybe even arguably linear, that Hollywood should get it?”

Question was rhetorical.  But now that I think about it, framing it that way makes me realize that it’s not really so complicated after all.

By Ron Coleman

I write this blog.