VidAngel or VidDevil?

About 17 of my friends are all spun up about a new controversy brewing about a service called VidAngel, a(nother) Utah-based video filtering company that promises to help you enjoy any film you want out Hollywood without offending any delicate sensibilities.  Their angle on the well-worn debacle?  They bring their flavor of filtering into the realm of streaming video, something not yet done by any other company.  Because there is no technically feasible approach to doing this without violating copyright, they are, in fact, getting sued by a consortium of content owners for their methods — and here’s my take on it.

Before I begin, though, I will say that I’m not going to attempt to take on the morality of this subject.  I don’t really care if you like or dislike filtering services or if you think they should exist or shouldn’t.  Nor do I recommend VidAngel or not recommend it.**  I intend to really just dissect the legality of the situation, strictly from an uninformed, lay-person-playing-lawyer perspective.  I could be right, I could be wrong, and this is a blog so it’s just my opinion any way.  You are entitled to yours as well, and if it’s different than mine — congratulations for rubbing two brain cells together to make fire, young caveperson.

Disclaimer in hand, is what VidAngel doing illegal?

They say no.  (If you want their opinion on what they are doing, you can read this stuff, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.)

To sum up their claim, they claim their are providing a service to their customers whereby they acquire a physical copy of a movie from a retail source at retail prices on behalf of you, their customer.  They then wave a magical technology wand and open a wormhole through the Internet from their datacenters into your household, where they play you that movie with their filters in place.  Since you “own” it, you can keep the movie forever (they charged you $20 for it) in some digital locker (with the correlating analog version in cold storage somewhere), or you can choose to sell it back to them and get some credit on your account, which you can then use to buy other filtered movies from them.  (What they really intend for you to do.)

Seems legitimate, no?  Here’s why it’s not:

When you buy a video disc or VHS tape or any other copyrighted film from a retail store, you are actually NOT buying the film itself.  You are buying a license to view that film a specific setting.  This is made crystal clear in those ominous FBI warnings that are displayed at the beginning of all home videos.  The work of art itself — the content — actually never belongs to you.  Yes, you did buy and you do own a piece of physical media that was made to transmit the film, but what you purchased for $19.95 was the license to view the video in the comfort and privacy of your own home.

This is the fundamental claim that owners of copyrighted material have over the art they sell; it is never “yours” — it’s always theirs — and they are just giving you a temporary license to watch it.  This is why it’s technically illegal to show a home movie in a public venue, like a park or baseball stadium, even when you have legitimately purchased a copy — it was not licensed for public performance.  Now, jack-booted thugs will not come crashing down your fence if you choose to have a backyard showing of The Sandlot to kick of little league season, but if your local little league chooses to show it before the first game of the season, and sells tickets and refreshments, you’d better believe their going to have a Disney lawyer sending them love-letters in due course.

And what about modifying a legally purchased copy of a movie?  That is also illegal — though illegal is kind of a strong word.  It’s a violation of the owner’s copyright.  They made a thing, which they then licensed to you to show your family in your home.  They did not give you, as part of that license, cart blanche to modify the original source material they sold you.  Pulling out the VHS tape, razor blading out a few minutes, and scotch taping it together is — technically — illegal — because you’ve altered the material and it can never be viewed again the way that it was licensed to you and sold to you.  Also, if you ever re-sell your license (copy) of the movie, it is forever altered and now they are N+1 divergent copies of the original source material on the market.  (You Mormons out there should now go ponder on the moral side of the question given what I’ve said here and our understanding of the ‘evil’ people who altered sacred texts  over the course of centuries.  They were just “filtered copies” they made for their own use, right?)

Now let’s apply our new understanding of licensed home viewing of films to the VidAngel service.

What VidAngel says they are doing and what they are actually doing are not the same thing.  If every time an order came in, they rushed down to WalMart, purchased the DVD you wanted off the shelf, stuck it in a magical internet-connected DVD player that transmitted the signal via closed-loop broadcast to your computer in your home, with some carbon-based life form sitting there with a remote skipping and muting parts of the movie you told them you might not like — then perhaps it would be legitimate.  But that’s not what they are doing, and their “model” is super-flawed.  (P.S. they know it too, which is why in their defense they call out that this was the 4th thing they tried when they were looking for a way to provide filtered, streaming media)

What they are really doing is pre-buying a BUNCH of copies of the same movie to build an inventory of movies that can be “sold” to a customer at one time.  Then they illegally decrypt one copy of the movie off of the disc.  Then they edit it for content and create special, digitized copy of this edited version and store it in their cloud.  (Presumably, they are also creating multiple copies with different variations of things cut out of them, giving their customer maximum flexibility in what they are willing to see and hear from a movie.)  Then, on demand from a customer, they stream you this illegally created copy of the movie you requested.

So there are a few ways this is illegal:

  1. They decrypt the source material.  Breaking encryption is illegal. (unless you are the NSA or CIA)  Sorry, charlie.  Slam dunk on that one alone.
  2. They alter the work and store altered copies of that copyrighted work for mass distribution.  This breaks the fundamental rule about not altering the source content you paid a license to view in your home.  Yes, you have the right to start, stop, mute, rewind, fast forward, or whatever you want in the comfort of your own home, but that license you purchased did not give you the right to permanently alter the content of the performance, nor does this company have a right to do it for you. ***
  3. They do not properly transfer the license to their customer in an established, conventional way.  Their claim is that they act as an intermediary, picking up a DVD at the store for you and then streaming it to you at your convenience.  However, they do not transfer the purchased, retail license to view the content via any regular, expected, or established means of retail transfer.  In real life, this looks like garage sales and flea markets and $5 DVD bins at Walmart.  One purchases and transmits the original source material between parties in the original way it was purchased, not an impermanent, copied, transiently transmitted set of bits that represent the content that was on the DVD/media purchased.  You don’t buy a DVD and then copy it to a VHS cassette, sell the VHS cassette and burn the DVD and claim that you transferred the license.  Nope, you created an illegal copy, dude.  Game over.

I don’t think they have a leg to stand on in this lawsuit, and I expect it to not drag on for too long.

And now I will say something they should start looking at… automated, cloud-connected eye covers and earplugs.  You can program the device to the time code of whatever movie you are watching and when something objectionable happens, it can clamp down on your head like the Iron Maiden so you don’t hear or see anything you don’t want to.  It will be all the rage, and that is a device that Hollywood can’t touch.

** What about Clearplay?  So far, in my estimation, Clearplay is actually the only legitimate technology for filtering movies.  I won’t attempt to explain the details here, but if you want a legal solution that will stick around, my money is on that approach.

*** Ok, so since I’ve never used it, I’m not quite sure on this one.  I’m also imagining they are storing and streaming complete copies of the movies and allowing a specially created video player (in the user’s computer or other device) to automatically mute or skip what they have chosen to filter based on a ‘script’ of time codes that do certain actions at certain times.  If that’s the case, then #2 doesn’t apply anymore.  But if they are doing #2 it’s definitely more heinous than #1 and #3.  If I were building a service like this, doing #2 is really a bad idea from both a legal and operational, so maybe they don’t actually do it.  Again — I dont’ know anything, just a bunch of blather from an uninformed lay person.  If you know more, feel free to correct the record in the comments.

Mitt: The Documentary

get_small_image.cgi_PRN19-NETFLIX-INC-GREG-WHITELEYS-MITT-yh_originalI watched the new Mitt Romney documentary last night and really, really liked it.  It’s no great piece of filmmaking, but it does a lot for me on a lot of levels:

This is the first real glimpse we have behind the scenes, to the “off the record” stuff that goes on between a candidate and his family. you can see it really does matter to them, and you can see how invested they are. you can see what happens on a good day and what happens on a bad day – and how hard these guys take it when things go wrong.

It shows Mitt as a real(er) person. Everyone who watches this movie is going to say, “Where was THIS guy during the campaign?”  Maybe people who went to fundraisers and rallies saw it up close, but most people just saw a very wooden, rich, white guy through the TV cameras, whose fate was sealed with the 47% comment because it confirmed everyone’s worse fears about Mitt; that he was totally out of touch with middle-class and poor America.

To continue the previous point – It does actually confirm that Mitt is kind of a stodgy, rich, white guy from the northeast.  The way you see him relate to his family is in stark contrast to the way you see him running his campaign.  And it’s no wonder people can’t “be themselves” when running for political office at that level – a truly middle class American would be so uncomfortable and out-of-place riding around on a private charter, dressing in 3 different sets of clothes all day long, putting all your energy into pretending to be interested in everything everyone said to you at a rope line or fundraiser.  Politics is a rich man’s profession.  And let’s not pretend that’s new, either.  All of our “founding fathers” were rich, white men – and nothing’s changed since.  (Except the “white” part.)

It confirms what I’ve long believed about the Republican party – that it’s a party of old white men who all get in line to run for office.  I can’t remember which brother said it, but he basically confirmed that the 2008 defeat was simply Mitt’s preparatory performance – that it was McCain’s turn – and that it would be his “turn” next time.  In my mind’s eye I’ve always been able to see Mitt’s call to McCain before conceding the race. McCain would say something like, “Mitt, if you throw your support behind me now, I’ll be there for you with an endorsement in 4 years” — and I can see that same phone call happening between Mitt and Rubio or Ryan at the end of Mitt’s loss as well.

On the more positive side, it shows an awesome Mormon family being totally, normally Mormon.  We see a well-functioning family with members being helpful,  members keeping him grounded, grandkids being part of Mitt’s life – and Ann keeping it all together.  A couple of very sincere, very un-staged family prayers are shown.  It actually kind of makes me want to be a Romney in a way – that they have such well adjusted relationships to each other that they can so easily relate to each other and that parents can take so much counsel and rely so much on their grown children.  It’s really something to envy.

The “flipping Mormon” segments are HILARIOUS! Such a double entendre for the Mormon crowd…  For those who may be reading this who are not Mormon.  “Flip” or “flipping” is a somewhat famous euphemism in the Mormon crowd for the real F-bomb.  When Mitt was getting hammered in the 2008 primary race for being a flip-flopper, we get to see his reaction to this with his family — who at the time was really worried about the way Mitt was being introduced to America — and their concern that America would only know Mitt as a “flipping Mormon.”  Then they said it about 20 times.  Funny inside joke.

Finally, I really identified with Mitt with one single thing he did during the movie – picked up trash.   This wasn’t the first time I’d seen video of Mitt doing trash duty.  There was some footage that got into official campaign stuff – which might have seemed staged or purposeful – but let me say from one Father to another and from one Mormon priesthood holder to another – I can relate to Mitt picking up trash.  I feel like I spend most of my time at home milling around the house picking up trash.  I was taught from a young age the importance of picking up trash at Church, and spent a lot of teenage years setting up chairs and picking up trash as a young Mormon priesthood holder.  In this thing, Mitt is a man after my own heart.  When you’re bogged down, trying to figure something out, stressed, tired, or just bored – you can always find some trash to pick up or take out to the curb.

Here’s a fun clip of him on Jimmy Fallon and the link to the Netflix movie:

Oscar is Dead to Me

oscar_statue-awardFor the last couple of years, I’ve been disappointed at the dearth of well written, well executed, creative films out there.  I’m even more disappointed that the truly great films have invariably come from the independent film and film festival movement.  No studios are willing to take a chance on a film that isn’t an instant product.

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Microsoft Finally Gets It Right

After the miserable failure of the epic “Seinfeld/Gates” ads and their “I’m a PC” ads, Microsoft has finally gotten this one right!

They’ve resorted to using children.  Check it out:

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The Olympics Needs Some Comic Relief

Have you been sucked in by the Olympics?  Can’t seem to turn the TV off, even when it’s 2am and your eyes are slamming shut?  Does all the intense drama, excitement, blood, sweat, and tears have you on the edge of your seat?

I just hope you didn’t miss this stunning performance…

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Really… it’s no fair that the women have different events than the men.  Plus, they get to wear cute little hair accessories.  I say, “Equal Gymnastics Rights for Men!”

(Thanks, Erika for sharing the hilarious video)

Someone Go Get Bob out of Mothballs

So, I finally caved in and started watching a few Olympic competitions.  NBC is, of course, still the HNIC of broadcasting anything Olympic.  In fact, when I was younger, I remember NBC’s peacock logo beign synonymous with the Olympic rings, and substituted the John Williams Olympic theme for the NBC sound (you know, the three xylophone/bells/marimba tones…)

But for all of the Olympic staples (the music, the rings, the McDonalds sponsorships), nothing surpasses the ubiquity of Bob Costas.

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How Dramatic

Depending on which chapter of my life you came to know me in, you may or may not know that I was pretty involved in the theatre.  Deeply.  Heavily.  Sickeningly.  I graduated in it, for the pity’s sake.

Since 2005, however, I have been only cursorily involved in a few things. Lately though, I’ve seen a lot of shows… more in the past two months than in the past year, I think…

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