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After a bitter three-year legal battle involving Utah companies that sanitize movies on DVD and VHS tape, a federal judge in Denver ruled Thursday that such editing violates U.S. copyright laws and must be stopped.
In a ruling in the case involving CleanFlicks vs. 16 of Hollywood's hottest directors, U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch found that making copies of movies to delete objectionable language, sex and violence hurts studios and directors who own the movie rights.
"Their [studios and directors] objective . . . is to stop the infringement because of its irreparable injury to the creative artistic expression in the copyrighted movies," the judge wrote in a 16-page decision. "There is a public interest in providing such protection. Their business is illegitimate."
Michael Apted, director of "Coal Miner's Daughter" and president of the Director's Guild of America, said Friday that movie directors can feel "vindicated" by the ruling.
"Audiences can now be assured that the films they buy or rent are the vision of the filmmakers who made them and not the arbitrary choices of a third-party editor," he said in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Ray Lines, chief executive of CleanFlicks in American Fork, said he plans to meet with his attorneys Monday to discuss the ruling, but vowed to keep fighting Hollywood.
"We're disappointed," he said. "This is a typical case of David vs. Goliath, but in this case, Hollywood rewrote the ending. We're going to continue to fight."
CleanFlicks is a distributor that produces copies of Hollywood blockbusters on DVD by burning a scrubbed version onto a blank disc. Those versions are then sold over the Internet and to video stores around the country who offer them for rent.
The judge ordered CleanFlicks and other companies named in the suit, including Play It Clean Video of Ogden and CleanFilms of Provo, to stop "producing, manufacturing, creating" as well as renting edited movies. Those businesses also must hand over all inventory to the movie studios within five days of the ruling.
Lines said there are 80 to 90 video stores in the U.S., half of them in Utah, that buy edited movies from CleanFlicks and rent them to customers. It's uncertain whether the ruling will affect those video stores but the decision targets all companies and "persons in active concert or participation with any of them," the ruling said.
The controversy over cleansing movies began in 1998 when the owners of Sunrise Family Video in American Fork began deleting nude scenes of Kate Winslet from the blockbuster "Titanic" for $5.
A number of companies subsequently cropped up, mostly in Utah County, providing a similar service or creating software that did the editing automatically. Many of those businesses, including Family Flix of Provo (which at one time was a party to the suit), closed up shop after infighting between competitors.
"I'm tired of fighting people in the business," said Sandra Teraci, who formerly owned Family Flix, which rented edited movies through the Internet. "I got tired of the whole rat race, so I'm going to make money making our own movies."
The ruling does not affect another Utah company, ClearPlay, which has developed technology in DVD players that edits movies on the fly as they play.
The cleansing trend created a firestorm in Tinseltown that resulted in suits and countersuits, with such directors as Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford and Martin Scorcese named as defendants.
"Directors put their skill, craft and often years of hard work into the creation of a film," Apted said. "These films carry our name and reflect our reputations. So we have great passion about protecting our work . . . against unauthorized editing."
Hollywood has been fighting Utah companies for eight years over editing sex, violence and language from hit movies. Here's how the story unfolded:
* In 1998, Sunrise Family Video in American Fork offered to edit nude scenes from "Titanic" for $5 for people who purchased the movie.
* Soon after, businesses like CleanFlicks began making edited copies of movies for sale. Other Utah companies like Trilogy Studios and ClearPlay, meanwhile, developed software for DVD players that skips over objectionable material automatically.
* CleanFlicks of Colorado, then affiliated with CleanFlicks of Utah, filed suit in 2002 against the Directors Guild of America and 16 filmmakers, including Robert Redford and Steven Spielberg, to force a legal ruling on the issue.
* Several months later, the directors fired back with a countersuit, which was eventually joined by Hollywood studios.
* While the case lumbered through the courts, President Bush signed the Family Movie Act in 2005, which legalized technologies used by companies like ClearPlay.
* Thursday, the U.S. District Court in Colorado ruled that CleanFlicks and similar companies are violating copyright law and must stop production.