The American Conservative Union has allied with Big Hollywood to launch a scurrilous attack on a startup company that’s trying to protect conservative values.
In a “Call to Congress” letter on their blog, signed by an odd mix of right-leaning organizations, they said Congress should not update the Family Movie Act of 2005 to help VidAngel, a Utah startup service that filters obscene material out of movies. VidAngel is currently being sued by several multibillion dollar movie studios, including Disney, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox. (Here’s VidAngel’s point-by-point rebuttal of the letter; I’m not going to focus on the back and forth but rather explain the issues at hand.)
VidAngel removes the user’s choice of nudity, sexual content, foul language, and violent scenes from Hollywood movies. Their main marketing angle is to families who wish to protect their kids from obscene material, but there are plenty of perfectly rational adults who would rather not watch the gratuitous nudity in Game of Thrones, hear the 506 f-bombs in The Wolf of Wall Street, or deal with any of the unnecessarily violent scenes in today’s mainstream movies. VidAngel helps families or just regular adults enjoy a movie without compromising their moral principles or exposing themselves to smut and trashiness.
The Family Movie Act of 2005 protects the right of families to legally filter out movies they own, as long as the filtering is performed on an authorized copy, watched privately at home, and no permanent filtered copy is made. The act passed Congress by unanimous consent and was signed by President George W. Bush in 2005, and it provides the legal basis for VidAngel.
Here’s how VidAngel worked, before a liberal California judge issued an injunction against them: VidAngel purchased physical copies of movies on DVD and Blu-ray and found all instances of objectionable content in a movie, including sex, nudity, profanity, and violence — anywhere from 1 to 300 objectionable scenes per movie. Any person who wanted to watch a movie without being subjected to those things could go to VidAngel and buy a movie for $20, and owners of the movie could then select what objectionable scenes they wanted to filter out — for example, removing all the cursing or just one particular word. Movie watchers bothered by violence but not by cursing could choose to filter out as much or as little as they wanted. And they could then watch the filtered movie via Internet streaming.
VidAngel would basically act as an automated fast-forward or mute button — it would simply skip or mute the objectionable scene. And after one finished watching, one could then sell the movie back to VidAngel for $19 in credit, making the effective cost $1.
To avoid copyright infringement, VidAngel had a physical copy of each movie that was being streamed, and only one user could access a copy at a time. For example, if 100 people wanted to watch a filtered version of Titanic on a Saturday night, but VidAngel only had 95 discs, those last 5 people would get an “out of stock” message. And if users didn’t sell the movie back to VidAngel within 20 days, VidAngel would never rent out that disc again, because whoever bought it owned it.
I should mention that VidAngel adopted this somewhat convoluted system after repeatedly trying to work out different systems that the movie studios would find agreeable. They tried 4 different systems of paying the studios the money they wanted, but the studios refused to work with them.
Desiring to protect their ability to push smut on to American families, the studios filed a lawsuit, and in December 2016, Judge Andre Birotte in California issued an injunction preventing VidAngel from filtering movies — not just movies of the four studios that were suing them, but every Hollywood studio. The case has been appealed to the ultra-liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and VidAngel is prepared to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
It was amidst this court battle that — two weeks ago, out of nowhere — the American Conservative Union joined the fray. In their letter, ACU called VidAngel “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” and even accused them of violating the Ten Commandments. They pointed to the fact that a similar service called ClearPlay, which sells physical DVD players that filter movies, has not taken VidAngel’s site in the lawsuit — ignoring the obvious reality that ClearPlay is an inferior competitor to VidAngel and has an incentive to oppose them. ACU is encouraging the lawsuit against VidAngel, and they accuse VidAngel of undermining the “core conservative principle of property rights and free-market principles that support a vibrant creative economy.”
The ACU’s letter is signed by a hodgepodge of individuals, including the ACU’s executive director, a single person from the Heritage Foundation, a few tax reform groups, and — bizarrely — Tradition, Family, Property, Inc. (TFP), a Catholic group that consistently rails against immorality in movies and video games.
There is nothing conservative about the ACU’s attack on VidAngel. They are taking the side of big Hollywood businesses over a small Utah startup. They are attacking the right of families to protect their children from smut. And they are attacking an ingenious, creative, free-market solution to a common problem.
Why would the ACU do this? Who knows, but now the movie industry can claim that even conservatives oppose VidAngel. It would appear the ACU has sold out to Big Hollywood.