It's acceptable for consumers to use software that edits out nudity or bad language from a DVD movie -- but they had better leave the commercials and promotional announcements in, according to legislation adopted by the House of Representatives this week.
The main thrust of House Resolution 4077, also known as the Piracy Deterrence and Education Act of 2004, is to make it illegal to smuggle a camcorder into a movie theater, surreptitiously record a film and then circulate the homemade production on the Internet.
But when it came time to vote, lawmakers did a little editing of their own and added language to the measure that would give federal protection to a special type of DVD player that can play cleaned-up, family-friendly versions of popular Hollywood movies.
The DVD player comes from a small Utah-based company called ClearPlay. Using the $70 player, it's possible to rent or buy a DVD such as "Cold Mountain" and watch it with the kids, without having to squirm through the scenes with sex or violence in them. ClearPlay's software filters contain a list of such scenes in certain movies and command the player to simply skip over them. At its Web site, ClearPlay lists hundreds of movies that the company has filtered in this way.
Hollywood wasn't particularly keen on the idea of a handful of programmers mucking around with their studios' content. The motion picture industry's take has been that ClearPlay's DVD player violates copyrights, as well as artistic freedom; lawsuits ensued.
Some members of Congress, however, regard the technology as an easy way for parents to weed out all the sex and violence in movies.
"This is the electronic equivalent of what parents did a generation ago to protect their children by muting the sound or fast-forwarding over objectionable material," said Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.), an author of the legislation, in a statement. "I believe that the rights of parents to protect their children are essential."
But when content owners such as Hollywood and gadget makers are regularly butting heads over matters of what copyright means when all forms of entertainment have been digitized, a vaguely worded phrase in a bill could affect the legality of an entire class of consumer electronics gadget.
Smith's bill alarmed some consumer advocates and consumer electronics makers over language that stated no changes or deletions could be made "to commercial advertisements, or to network or station promotional announcements, that would otherwise be performed or displayed before, during or after the performance of the motion picture."
In a statement, Smith said the language was narrowly tailored to deal only with ClearPlay-like technology. But some worried the language might be used to outlaw one of the major functions of personal video recorders such as TiVo. TiVos record television shows to a hard drive, and one appeal of the gadgets is that they can be used to fast-forward through commercials as users watch this week's installment of "The Apprentice," say, with their Saturday morning coffee.
Art Brodsky, communications director at Public Knowledge, a group that tracks copyright and technology policy issues, deemed the clause "another attempt by Hollywood to extend their total control over the listening and viewing behavior of consumers."
Consumers who have contemplated buying a TiVo might not have to rush to the electronics store yet, though. The Senate has approved similar legislation governing camcorders in movie theaters that does not mention ClearPlay-like technology or protecting commercials.
James M. Burger, an attorney for TiVo Inc., said he's been assured by lawmakers that they will ultimately agree on revised language that makes it clear the legislation does not address products such as TiVo.
"We are pleased we were able to work with the House and Senate staff and other interested parties to add language making sure that [personal video recorder] functionality would not be able to be called in question by this otherwise important legislation," Burger said.