PROVO — A movie-filtering technology developed in Utah and now under fire in the courts could score a victory when Congress reconvenes after next month's elections.
Before this week's recess, the U.S. House of Representatives approved and sent to the Senate the Piracy Deterrence and Education Act, including a section called the Family Movie Act, which would indemnify technologies that filter objectionable content out of movies during viewing without permanently altering them.
Salt Lake-based ClearPlay is a company that produces technology fitting that description. ClearPlay's technology embeds movie-specific filtering files into DVD players that instruct the player where to skip unwanted content or language.
The company is involved in a lawsuit with the Directors Guild of America and Motion Picture Association of America, which both say ClearPlay's technology infringes on copyright by altering a work without the knowledge or consent of the copyright holder. Utah-based movie-editing company CleanFlicks is a party in the lawsuit, as well.
ClearPlay Chief Executive Officer Bill Aho testified at a recent House judiciary subcommittee hearing on movie filtering technology.
"It seems to me that families should have the right to watch what they want in their home," Aho said in defense of the Family Movie Act. "If the studios can extend their copyright into the living room and the family experience, well, I guess they'd like to do that. We happen to think that the copyright law doesn't give them that kind of protection."
Jack Valenti, former CEO of the motion-picture association, testified before Congress as well, and though the MPAA supports the bill as a whole because it would curb piracy, it does not support the Family Movie Act section, preferring to resolve issues through licensing agreements.
In a statement, Valenti said that solution would involve "the studios, in consultation with the directors, creating 'airplane-like' versions of popular movies." Commercial editing services would then use those versions as templates to prepare their alternate versions, he said.
CleanFlicks President Allan Erb is not thrilled with that option.
"To put (the studios and directors) in a position where they control the editing, I think would be dangerous unless there were some safeguards or mechanisms in place to assure that we wouldn't just drift, as we have over the last 10 or 15 years, into a ever-increasingly lower and lower moral standard," Erb said.
The Family Movie Act won't solve any of CleanFlicks' legal battles, as it only applies to technologies that do not alter the original content of a film.
"The bill was specifically designed to accommodate what (ClearPlay does) and what they do only — it was designed pretty much explicitly to protect ClearPlay," Erb said. "It's neutral in terms of what we do."
Erb says he's not so sure the bill will pass in its current form, but that his company may seek to get involved and expand the bill's scope.
For ClearPlay, enactment of the bill as it is written would mean an end to its legal struggles with Hollywood.
"I can't imagine the studios sustaining a lawsuit in light of the Family Movie Act," Aho said. "It makes it so clear that we are not in violation of copyright."
Aho says the lawsuits have definitely hurt business, keeping interested companies from considering ClearPlay's technology.
"I think there have been other companies that have sat on the sidelines because they're afraid to engage because of the litigation," he said. "I expect that more companies will be interested in this category once the Hollywood suit goes away."
Provo resident Alan Melby is an adviser to the Viewer Freedom Foundation, a national non-profit organization that promotes viewer's rights, and is trying to drum up support among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who are urged by church leaders to avoid movies with profanity, nudity, excessive violence and gore.
"We're trying to get people in as many states as possible — hopefully all 50 states — to call their senators," Melby said.
"If we don't get the word out to most, if not all of our 100 senators, then the movie industry could possibly succeed in saying, 'Hey, let's just take this section out of the Senate version.' That's what we're trying to avoid."
Melby says he supports the Family Movie Act because it gives parents a legal alternative.
"If the Family Movie Act gets taken out of the Senate version, parents won't have very many options at all," he said. "In the past, it's been pretty much, you watch a movie, or you don't watch it at all. This act gives parents more options for parental control."