A matter of copyright law, not artistic expression

Okay, so it’s time for one more trip to the edited movie well. I thought I had written the last word on the subject, but as today’s Doug Robinson column in the Deseret Morning News demonstrates, this issue is still alive and kicking in Utah.

Doug makes a few valid points, but he also falls into the common trap of debating the artistic merit of Hollywood productions. The fight over what constitutes art is a fight no one can win, Doug. Unfortunately, it’s also a "straw man" argument which edited movie supporters are propping up for attack instead of dealing with the real issue at stake – copyright infringement.

A few of Doug’s points, with my responses:

U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch ruled that edited objectionable scenes cause "irreparable injury to the creative artistic expression in the copyrighted movies."

Putting the phrase of "creative artistic expression" to most Hollywood fare is like calling Big Macs "cuisine." For every "Crash" and "Traffic," there are dozens of movies like "Con Air," "Friday the 13th," "Anger Management" and anything with Sharon Stone and Vin Diesel in it. Try calling those "art."

Anyone with eyes can see that Hollywood’s use of swear words, nudity and gore goes beyond "artistic expression." Or don’t you find it funny that "artistic expression" consists of precisely one F-word, which, not coincidentally, is the exact dosage allowed to earn a PG-13 rating.

I agree that most of what Hollywood passes off as "art" probably isn’t. But to casually dismiss all megaplex blockbusters as populist fluff is to ignore the contributions of hundreds of talented set designers, Foley artists, musicians, cinematographers and others who put their best efforts into creating the finished product and putting it on the screen. Sit and watch the credits for any given movie, and realize that each name on the screen represents a person who invested significant time and resources into the film. Now, you and I may find that film utterly reprehensible, but it’s not our prerogative to determine whether or not it qualifies as "art." If those who created it call it thus, then the issue is settled. It is.

Can you imagine what our cultural heritage would be like if all art was decided by popular vote?

More from Doug:

Hollywood is telling its customers to take what it gives them or take a hike. In essence, the ruling means that even if you own a work of "art" — movies, paintings, etc. — you cannot alter it. You must view a movie as the "artist" intended it to be watched, which, taken one step further, means you can’t legally fast-forward through F-words, sex, bloody murders, whatever, in your own living room. The "artist" also didn’t intend for you to skip the trailers or the credits, and you can’t jump ahead to watch a favorite scene in the middle of the movie because the movie was intended to be watched from beginning to end.

This is simply absurd. First of all, having a DVD on your bookshelf is not the same thing as owning the movie pressed on it. Second, the judge’s decision said nothing about fast-forwarding through the parts you don’t like. Has Doug never heard of the Family Film Act of last year? Or ClearPlay, whose actions are protected under law? What is illegal is to create your own derivative work based on the original film and distribute it to others. That’s what CleanFlicks and CleanFilms did, and now they’re shutting down.

If Hollywood is turning its back on a chance to make more money; if it is making its own edited versions for TV and airlines but refuses to make them available to the general public, this can lead to only one conclusion: That this is more about ego, power and social agenda than art.

No doubt. But that doesn’t excuse anyone for violating copyright laws.

Not that Hollywood never has a legitimate gripe. I watched edited and unedited versions of the brilliant movie, "Crash." In one scene, the Sandra Bullock character makes stereotypical remarks about a Hispanic repairman who is working in her home. That scene is completely deleted, not for language or nudity but apparently because it is politically incorrect and racist.

Of course it is! That’s the point. The movie is all about misunderstandings and connections between races and trying to understand one another. Later, we learn that the Hispanic man is a loving father and husband, but the contrast between perception and reality is lost.

On the other hand: So I’m watching the mindless movie "Failure to Launch" with my family when the lead character tells a young woman to get the F-word out of his car.

Nice "artistic expression."

This is a fine point, and another example of the risks in creating edited movies. See, the people behind the edited movie businesses would have us believe that all offensive content is gratuitous, but that simply isn’t so. Much of the drama in certain mature storylines stems from the consequences of a character’s offensive or immoral conduct. When it is removed, often the emotional power and significance of all else that follows is compromised as well. The example from Crash is quite demonstrative of this. See what happens when the community puts itself in charge of deciding what is "art"? At least ClearPlay’s filters are fully customizable, so a viewer can decide to what degree he wishes to be shielded from certain content. For instance, he may decide to turn the violence filter off for Saving Private Ryan so he can witness the brutality of war the way Steven Spielberg intended, but allow the language filter to strip out the approximately 20 F-bombs. But it’s still an imperfect solution.

Meanwhile, viewers feel like they have no choices now, but they’re wrong. They can choose not to patronize or rent certain movies, even if it means going without. Besides, doesn’t it seem that our culture is obsessed with movies and that our chief forms of entertainment are pretty much limited to movies and restaurants?

Maybe there is something better to do.

Hmm, you think?

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Funny story: Cassia and I once rented Two Weeks Notice from CleanFilms, and at the end of the movie a notice came up on screen, something to the effect of "The music which plays over the closing credits contains objectionable lyrics. Therefore, we’re cutting out the credits." And suddenly, the DVD reset to the opening menu screen. Cassia and I looked at each other and laughed.

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