Call it a clean-cut victory.
Siding with 16 of Tinseltown's biggest directors, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Steven Soderbergh, a federal judge in Denver has ordered several companies to cease and desist from editing out movie content they find offensive.
In a 16-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Richard P. Matsch said the actions taken by Utah-based CleanFlicks and retailers such as Clean Cut, Family Flix and Play It Clean Video to cut out profanity and graphic scenes of nudity and violence from DVDs and then redistributing the sanitized versions over the Internet and to video stores across the country violated U.S. copyrights laws.
"[Moviemakers'] objective...is to stop the infringement because of its irreparable injury to the creative artistic expression in the copyrighted movies," the judge wrote. "There is a public interest in providing such protection. Their business is illegitimate."
Matsch ordered CleanFlicks and the other defendants to hand over their entire inventory of scrubbed flicks to the five major Hollywood studios and stop "producing, manufacturing, creating" and renting the cleaned-up material within five days or face possible court action, including the likelihood of massive penalties.
"Audiences can now be assured that the films they buy or rent are the vision of the filmmakers who made them and not the arbitrary choices of a third-party editor," Michael Apted, a noted filmmaker and president of the Directors Guild of America, said in a statement.
The legal dust-up began in 2002 when CleanFlicks, citing First Amendment and fair use arguments, sought a preemptive court ruling granting the company the right to splice out any unwanted frames that might not mesh with its subscribers' G-rated sensibilities--for instance, saving viewers from a topless Kate Winslet in Titanic, nixing four-and-a-half minute of bloody carnage in Saving Private Ryan and or removing all the racy jokes that made The Wedding Crashers last year's top-grossing comedy.
CleanFlicks franchisees in Idaho and Colorado chimed in by claiming their customers knew what they're getting when they order sanitized flicks from them.
The DGA fired back with a countersuit that was eventually joined by Hollywood's major studios. The filmmakers alleged that, by taking it upon themselves to cleanse movies of R-rated elements they found objectionable, the services amounted to censorship--like ripping the pages out of a book they didn't like.
The clean-cut purveyors were dinged for their attempted end-around of copyright statutes. For instance, CleanFlicks' business model--in which its 80-90 video stores, most in Utah, purchase the excised versions and in turn sell and rent them to customers--is prohibited by law, as anyone who reads the FBI warning at the beginning of a DVD can attest.
"The right to control the content of the copyrighted work...is the essence of the law of copyright," wrote the judge.
"Directors put their skill, craft and often years of hard work into the creation of a film," added Apted, whose own repertoire includes the 1999 James Bond adventure The World Is Not Enough and Gorillas in the Mist. "These films carry our name and reflect our reputations. So we have great passion about protecting our work...against unauthorized editing."
While Apted says the DGA members felt "vindicated" by the decision, he notes that the ruling does not apply to companies like Salt Lake City-based ClearPlay, which sells computer software and modified DVD players that allow viewers to skip over any materials they deem objectionable.
Ray Lines, CleanFlicks' CEO, defended his company's aims and strongly hinted an appeal is forthcoming.
"We're disappointed," he told the Salt Lake City Tribune. "This is a typical case of David vs. Goliath, but in this case, Hollywood rewrote the ending. We're going to continue to fight."