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Image: VidAngel

The first gives viewers the right to filter movies they own and watch in their own homes, provided they do not create a permanent censored copy.

To comply with this law, VidAngel purchases DVDs for the movies available on its site, then sells them to customers for $20 while providing a streaming version for them to watch on their computer, Apple TV, Roku, or other device with their designated filters in place. After they watch the movie or show, customers can sell the DVD back for $19—essentially making it a $1 movie rental. According to VidAngel, this assures that viewers own the movie and that no permanent censored copy is created.

However, the second law, which protects movie copyrights, bans people from decrypting DVDs, which VidAngel must do in order to stream a filtered version. (Legally, this switch in format is called “space shifting.”) The company argues that the FMA, as well as fair-use laws, exempt its decryption.

Paige Mills, media and entertainment attorney with Bass, Berry & Sims PLC in Nashville, told CT that VidAngel’s position is “pretty chancy” given the legal history:

The court’s opinion stated that there was no support for the position that space shifting is an allowed reason to circumvent encryption technology and sets forth that multiple courts have declined to adopt an exception for space shifting….

Senator Orrin Hatch, who introduced the FMA in the US Senate, explicitly stated that the FMA “does not provide any exemption from the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA.”

From VidAngel’s perspective, studios continually resist giving customers the option to censor objectionable content. They won’t authorize edited versions—like the ones that run on airplanes—and they shut down previous iterations of VidAngel’s business model, including a tool to censor already-purchased movies in YouTube or content licensed through Google Play.

“They contend that the filtering itself is a violation. They also contend that streaming is a violation,” said David Quinto, VidAngel’s lawyer. “It’s not a financial thing at all. If it were, the studios would offer to sell us a license.”

A victory for the Hollywood studios doesn’t leave VidAngel’s customers with many other options.

“If there is not a way for people to filter in the streaming age, then filtering will die in the DVD age,” said Harmon. “For us, that’s an unacceptable outcome.”

What Would Jesus Censor?

The counterargument to content filtering goes: If you don’t like a movie, don’t watch it—and don’t put money into the pockets of the people who made it.

But Quinto believes that people shouldn’t have to compromise their cultural relevancy in a country where pop culture is part of the unifying “common experience” just because they don’t want to hear another F-bomb. Watching a movie on your own parameters, in other words, is a way to be “in the world but not of it.”

Bob Waliszewski, director of Focus on the Family’s entertainment review site Plugged In, understands the decision to boycott explicit movies. He encourages viewers to ask themselves, “What would Jesus watch if he were here today?” Yet, he believes filtering lets Christians experience more of the box office’s best.

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