Back in 1998, a video rental store in American Fork started editing copies of “Titanic” to make the film friendlier for a general audience. This resulted in a great deal of national attention and considerable blowback from movie studios that saw the store, Sunrise Family Video, as a threat to their industry. Lawsuits inevitably ensued.
Sunrise Family Video, and, indeed, the entire videotape rental industry has faded into obsolescence, but the consumer appetite for edited versions of mainstream Hollywood films has never been greater. Unfortunately, the ire of major studios remains unabated. For some reason, Hollywood refuses to release cleaned-up versions of major releases to consumers, but at the same time does everything in its power to prevent other private companies from meeting this overwhelming demand.
Major studios need to either pursue this market or step aside and allow others the opportunity.
The latest potential casualty in this ongoing battle is VidAngel, a video streaming service that provides edited content. The company has been shut down by a preliminary injunction, although VidAngel vows to take the fight to court and eventually prevail. The hope is that it will create a legal precedent that will allow consumers to, in the words of VidAngel attorney David Quinto, “have the right to watch content however they want.” Quinto insisted that this is an important case and one that matters to him personally. “I should be free in the privacy of my home to watch as much of the motion pictures as I want and not watch as I wish,” he said, noting that his client has the resources to take the matter to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
The case is hardly a slam dunk one way or the other. Certainly movie studios have a right to defend their copyrights and their intellectual property, just as consumers have the right to stop, fast forward, or rewind movies streaming into their homes. The proper balance between those two rights is increasingly precarious in a world where the streaming of movies and TV shows has replaced physical, tangible items like the videocassettes that Sunrise Family Video would slice up. It’s an important question, and it’s one that we hope the courts are able to settle in a fair-minded and reasonable manner.
What is increasingly clear in this ongoing dispute is the reality that major movie studios are leaving money on the table by refusing to provide their own edited versions for public consumption. For decades, studios have released movies that are edited for broadcast television or for airline flights. If they were willing to stream these into people’s homes, they’d likely put VidAngel out of business without any messy lawsuits — and they’d make a whole lot of money in the process. The demand is clearly there, so studios would greatly benefit the public — and their own shareholders — by providing the supply. But if they’re not willing, please let VidAngel do the job.