Imagine watching The Godfather without the horse’s head. Or a bloodless version of Game of Thrones’ infamous Red Wedding. Or a Quentin Tarantino movie—any Quentin Tarantino movie—without a single F-bomb or gruesome death.
You can, thanks to VidAngel, a Provo, Utah-based company launched in August 2015. VidAngel allows home viewers to watch mainstream movies and TV shows customized to their moral standards.
The startup hasn’t gotten much attention beyond a niche audience of religious and socially conservative families who prefer their Hollywood offerings pre-scrubbed of objectionable content. But behind its cheerful haloed logo is a thorny, two-decade debate over fair use, free speech, and the right to watch films smut-free.
This is how the service works: Before a movie or TV show is uploaded to VidAngel, internal reviewers parse the film and digitally tag anything a viewer might find objectionable—scenes of sex, violence, drug use, profanity, or blasphemy.
On the site, users browse a Netflix-style interface and purchase digital copies of the films or shows for $20. The films can be sold back to VidAngel after viewing for the purchase price, minus $2 per day for an HD film or $1 for standard definition. Users check the filters they want deployed and settle back to watch the movie, either on VidAngel’s on-site player or by using its app to stream to a device like Apple TV.
The number of tags vary widely depending on the content. The animated Pixar movie Finding Nemo has 36, mostly for cartoonishly mild violence like characters getting bonked on the head.
Straight Outta Compton, the most-tagged film in their catalogue of roughly 2,000 titles, has 961.
The result is a functional but imperfect edit reminiscent of films censored for basic cable. An unaware viewer of VidAngel’s version of The Wolf of Wall Street might assume that there was a problem with the audio, or that Jordan Belfort spoke with a lot of thoughtful pauses. The last 20 minutes of The Departed is a bewildering series of jumpy cuts.
Silencing a “damn” here and there in a PG-rated film may hardly register. But other filters change the content profoundly. One of the most popular filters excises the character Jar Jar Binks from the first three Star Wars films.
It’s one of the few offered filters based on artistic taste, not morals, co-founder Neal Harmon explained: “A lot of people don’t like Jar Jar Binks.”
Harmon founded VidAngel with three of his five brothers. The company isn’t releasing revenue or viewer data, though Harmon said the bulk of their users are married couples with young children.
As Harmon sees it, VidAngel honors two sides of a libertarian coin. Society shouldn’t censor films for public consumption, nor should it prohibit private citizens from doing so in the privacy of their homes.
“We agree with Hollywood that the director should have the right to determine how their work is performed in a public setting,” he said. “That’s free speech. That’s everything America’s about. [But] once you take something into your own home, it makes sense that nobody has the right to tell you how to consume something in your own home.”
The truth of this last statement has been parsed to excruciating degree in US courts. No one is arguing that a vigilant parent armed with a remote control can’t legally fast-forward through parts of a DVD they’d rather their children not see at home. The question is whether it’s acceptable to create a permanent copy of that edit, and to share it—for profit or otherwise—with others.
The father of at-home censoring is Ray Lines, a Utah video editor. In the late 1990s, Lines parlayed a side business snipping sex, violence, and obscene language from friends’ and neighbors’ VHS tapes into a company he named CleanFlicks. Customers purchased unedited tapes (and later, DVDs) from retailers and sent them to Lines to remove objectionable content. He also rented out a library of his edited films. (A great 2009 documentary called Cleanflix details the business’s rise and fall.)
Lines’s edit of The Matrix, which deftly excised 26 killings from the 1999 Keanu Reeves flick, was a hit with viewers. CleanFlicks distributors and knock-off businesses proliferated, particularly in Utah and areas with strong concentrations of Mormon families. (A 1986 edict from a church prophet discourages the viewing of R-rated or “vulgar” films.)
As the secondary market in edited films flourished, Hollywood took notice.
“To alter these and then put them out with our names still on the product is not only fraud, but it’s artistic rape,” L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson told an interviewer in 2002, colorfully stating what many filmmakers felt to be a violation of their commercial and artistic rights.
A volley of lawsuits followed. The most famous, Huntsman vs. Soderbergh (as in director Steven Soderbergh), resulted in a 2006 ruling that shut down virtually overnight the editors, distributors, and retailers selling and renting filtered films.
It permitted one exception, later codified in federal law as the Family Movie Act: Technology that hid or muted limited portions of the audio or video during at-home viewing would not constitute trademark or copyright infringement.
This is the legal protection shielding VidAngel and similar technologies on the market, including ClearPlay, a physical player that filters as a film runs.
These companies can’t sell or rent customers an edited copy of a film. Nor can they archive or create a permanent copy of the filtered movie. They can only sell unedited versions of the work, plus access to technology to alter the audio and video as it is being watched.
“It was totally cutting edge. Nobody was sure exactly where this [was] going, . . . because software like this was just being developed,” recalled Denver-based attorney Thomas P. Howard, who successfully defended a software manufacturer party to the Huntsman case.
Ten years after Huntsman vs Soderbegh, we live in a world where it is technologically and commercially possible to watch Soderbergh’s stripper tale Magic Mike without scenes of “immodesty.” But the questions the movie filtering market raised about what constitutes fair use continue. It has never been so easy to alter a copyrighted work and publish the result. It’s never been so complicated to figure out where the line of legality is drawn.
“It’s still actually very cutting edge,” Howard said. “I get similar questions all the time from people that are putting things up on the Internet and wondering what they can use, what they can’t use.”