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April 20, 2005
What, Exactly, Did Congress Propose to Legalize?
A Reg headline caught my eye: Congress legalizes DVD censorship. *Blink* OK, that's not totally out of character, but what's up? The article, by Thomas C Greene, describes a bill called the Family Movie Act.
According to Greene, this bill "indemnifies any company that makes prudish versions of movies available without authorization." That sounds a lot like sharing remixes, which I know Congress won't go for. What means this "makes... available" anyway? So off I go to Thomas to read the bill. Unfortunately there are four versions in there, and it's not clear which one the House-Senate conference committee actually sent to the President's desk.
As far as I can glean, this bill legitimizes the unauthorized (by the original artists) creation of derivative works, so long as they're under a "family friendly" rubric and they're not resold for commerical purposes. The idea is not to produce a new DVD per se, but to permit technology, such as that made by companies like ClearPlay, that allows DVD players to show a different version of the DVD than might originally have been on the disk, for example by skipping past objectionable content, or overlaying G-rated audio. ClearPlay's current product involves "downloadable filter templates" that can automatically skip past "objectionable" content. According to the company site, the filters go on a movie-by-movie basis, so you download the specific filter for the movie you want to watch.
Unless there's something in the final bill that I missed (anyone have a link to it?) I don't see how this is censorship. My guess is that what you end up with is a lot like watching movies on airline flights. Greene does note (citing Marjorie Heins of the Free Expression Policy Project) that optional technologies have a distressing tendency to become mandates, such as Internet nanny filters in public libraries. Agreed that's a danger, but I still don't see a problem with the home consumer customizing the family viewing environment.
Update: Cory has a rant about this bill, and WIRED's story by Katie Dean provides a handy link into Thomas. Dean links to the House version of the bill. Thanks to commenter using the handle "joe" for these pointers.
Update 2: the story is also appearing on more conventional media, including Declan on CNET, and an unbylined AP story (here on siliconvalley.com). Declan points out that the draconian punishments in the bill would in theory permit authorities to target individual P2P users with remarkably high penalties for sharing a single movie. Pontification on the obvious decay of a society that treats "theft" of "virtual property" more severely than actual theft of real property are left as an exercise for someone else.
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