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Why Is Disney Fighting To Stop Parents From Filtering Kids’ Media Intake?


Most families govern the entertainment their children consume. For some, the lowering of standards and the coarsening of our culture make this both more difficult and more needed, even as technology affords more avenues for Hollywood content to enter the home.

Yet technology can also help those parents, through editing and filtering services. That is, until Hollywood steps in to battle those efforts. Under the guise of high-minded principles like censorship, creative freedom, and artistic integrity, studios keep fighting the technologies that give parents control over what their children consume. And this charge is being led by the studio built upon family entertainment: Disney Studios.

The Utah-based company Vid Angel recently announced its new service for in-home filtering. Its product is designed to give families direct control over the content of movies and shows that play from their streaming services. Through a series of radio buttons and drop-down menus, customers receive a fully customizable parental block tool. Depending on their personal judgement, parents can limit the violence, sexual content, and coarse language their children would otherwise see in an unfiltered movie or show.

Any entertainment selections from a user’s Netflix, Amazon Prime, or HBO streaming account can be filtered, with the exception of content from four studios: Disney, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and LucasFilm. These entities joined to battle Vid Angel in court over its earlier DVD iteration. In that business model, customers could rent filtered versions of Hollywood films. The studios, led by a team of lawyers from Disney, argued against this practice, and the court handed down an injunction barring the DVD rental service.

You’re Making Video Mix Tapes of Our Work

The crux of the argument was that Vid Angel used a decryption technology to access the content then filter it for playback. While on first blush this appears like a valid claim by the studios—that their intellectual property was subject to unlicensed access and editing—federal legislation allows this particular practice, with particular limits. Entitled The Family Movie Act (FMA) and passed in 2004, it concerns the confluence of copyright law and the permissiveness of services to filter entertainment content.

As this legislation allows for some filtering activity without violating The Trademark Act, Disney-led lawyers have relied upon the razor-fine point of possession of their content, under the section EXEMPTION FROM COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT.

(11)(A) the making of limited portions of audio or video content of a motion picture imperceptible by or for the owner or other lawful possessor of an authorized copy of that motion picture in the course of viewing of that work for private use in a household, by means of consumer equipment or services that—

(i) are operated by an individual in that household;

(ii) serve only such household; and

(iii) do not create a fixed copy of the altered version; and

(B) the use of technology to make such audio or video content imperceptible, that does not create a fixed copy of the altered version.

The studios said altering the DVDs fell under the “fixed copy” definer, and the decryption it employed was a violation. The courts sided with the studios, and the injunction was put in place six months ago. In that time Vid Angel developed its new streaming version, partly due to arguments Disney made in court, where counsel stated that filtering streamed content could be an allowed format.

Vid Angel’s new application has customers provide the company their streaming account information. The service then submits to the streaming provider as a proxy, and the playback comes through the app. Customers use their customized filtering selections to view the content as they see fit. This ostensibly meets the legal framework of The Family Movie Act, as the entertainment property is delivered in full, and the alterations are performed by the end user.

Filtering For Us, But Not For You

The legal fight is expected to continue, however. Vid Angel has filed for an exemption so customers can access the four studios’ content through its newest service. The studios target the filtering in numerous alternate ways to elide violating FMA. Regarding, the studio reps have challenged the decryption and argued the company had no license to filter content (while refusing to issue such a license). In purchase agreements they employed restrictive DVD standards like issuing “out of stock” notices, convoluted buyback structures, or requiring retail pricing on wholesale purchases.

The studios also enjoy agreeable rulings in the courts. One revealing episode transpired in the ever-adventurous Ninth Circuit Court. As arguments were about to be heard between lawyers from Vid Angel and the Disney-led counsel, a hot mic picked up one justice leaning to another to declare, “I think this one’s a lot easier.”

Once the video of that interlude began to spread over social media the public feed for the Ninth Circuit was taken down. A few days later the feed was brought back, with the audio of that exchange removed. This carries deep irony, since the court was ruling against filtering services while filtering its own content.

Hollywood Leans on Conservative Group for PR Help

Beyond just the courts, to win on this issue Hollywood has also been developing contacts and partnerships with a longtime foe: conservatives. In a rather quixotic piece of evidence, calls from the American Conservative Union ask legislators to not update the Family Movie Act to accommodate streaming services. The FMA was written when DVDs were the predominant medium for film. Streaming was in its nascent stages at best in 2004, and since it has become the industry standard logic would dictate an update. Yet the ACU letter to Congress reads like a Hollywood studio press release.

Why a supposed conservative organ would side against families having control of their entertainment consumption is beyond curious. The most revealing aspect is the claim in the letter that, “For more than a decade since the enactment of the Family Movie Act, there have been no disputes or litigation over the operation of filtering services that enable individuals to use technology to automate the skipping and muting of content they consider offensive in the home.”

This is patently laughable. The studios have battled most (save for the struggling) filtering services in court. The FMA was in fact created as a direct result of Hollywood suing the company ClearPlay when it offered an in-home DVD player that filtered discs. For the ACU to act as the PR arm of Hollywood in DC exceeds curiosity.

The Director Complaint Loophole

There may be another legal roadblock on the horizon for studios to insist their product remains untouched by parents’ fingers. In response to an obvious demand for family-friendly content, Sony recently announced it would offer a preliminary service with “clean versions” of selected titles from its vaults. After the announcement, the initial slate of 24 titles was truncated to only 17.

What provoked the change? Directors Adam McKay and Adam Sandler balking at having their films edited. That in-house conflict could also could pave a new legal detour around the Family Movie Act for studios. Studio contracts with directors could include requirements that “their” films cannot be edited without direct consent.

This could be just what the studios need to continue forcing their unedited films on audiences. By having the directors make this legal claim, the studios would have a cut-out, and could claim to be powerless to allow filtering. The only recourse then would be for families to forego watching their movies entirely.