May 28, 2004


You would think that movie directors would know what censorship is, but it seems that they don't. There's a new DVD player out, the RCA DRC232N, that is causing a fuss. This DVD player contains software called ClearPlay that cuts out words and scenes that would be offensive to the viewer. The user configures the DVD player according to his or her preferences in a number of categories: violence, nudity, blasphemy, and so forth. The ClearPlay company reviews films and produces an electronic annotation indicating the location of words and scenes that would offend a viewer with certain preferences. If the user of the DVD player wants to cut out certain kinds of material, he installs the annotation. The DVD player then cuts out whatever bits, according to the annotation, would not conform to the preferences set. Some people are using this system to control what their children watch. Others are using it for their own viewing, to avoid what they would find upsetting.

I would think that the movie industry would be pleased. Such a gadget provides people who are easily offended by current movies, or who are concerned with what their children watch, with an alternative to complaining about the movie industry and demanding censorship. It will probably increase sales, since people who might previously have avoided a film may now see it. In fact, the industry is outraged and is engaged in litigation over this. There is much talk in the media and on the web of "censorship". The Directors Guild of America says:

ClearPlay software edits movies to conform to ClearPlay's vision of a movie instead of letting audiences see, and judge for themselves, what writers wrote, what actors said and what directors envisioned.
There's some muddled thinking going on here. This isn't censorship. The movie industry still puts out exactly what it wants to, and audiences still see what they they want to see. Everybody is free to use another DVD player, or to use this one with a configuration that suppresses nothing, or to use it without the annotation. All this software does is allow the user to choose to skip selected portions of the movie. Contrary to the DGA's claim, ClearPlay doesn't edit movies to conform to its vision - it simply tags them so that viewers can make their own decisions. Providing audiences with a choice is not censorship.

There is also an issue here of artistic integrity, though it is a bit of a stretch to characterize some movies as "art". The DGA seems to think that the director has the right to have his work viewed exactly as he intended it. There's some validity to this when a work is unique, which is why in some European countries there are now laws that prevent the alteration or wanton destruction of works of art, but here there's no question of the original being lost. The director's only right is to present his work to the viewer - he has no right to control what the viewer does with it. When you read a book, you read it as you wish. You can skip whatever you like, you can read it backwards, you can skip around, or look up selected bits in the index. You have no obligation to read the book as the author intended you to.

The DGA should should be ashamed of itself for crying wolf about censorship. Allowing people to skip bits of movies that they find offensive isn't censorship. Censorship is a very serious matter, and in much of the world is severe, as documented by organizations like Human Rights Watch. It isn't absent in the United States, as the National Coalition Against Censorship and American Civil Liberties Union will attest. It isn't a word that should be taken in vain.

Posted by Bill Poser at May 28, 2004 12:06 AM