Late last week, a federal judge in Colorado ruled that "sanitizing" movies on DVD or VHS is a violation of federal copyright laws, and companies that engage in that practice must turn over their inventory to Hollywood studios.

The decision, which came last Thursday, affects such businesses as CleanFlicks, CleanFilms, and Play It Clean Video. Such companies are known for offering "family-friendly" versions of popular movies—including R-rated films—by editing out objectionable content such as sex, nudity, profanity, and graphic violence.

In a 16-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch called the practice of sanitizing videos "illegitimate," and ordered those companies to stop "producing, manufacturing, creating" and renting edited movies.

I think the judge made the right call, at least in principle. Copyright law is far too complicated for me to determine whether sanitizing videos is technically legal—the companies argue that it is legal, citing "fair use" guidelines for copyrighted material—but my concern is about whether it's right.

And I don't think it is.

Movies—even bad ones—are works of art, created by artists with a certain vision of what they want to communicate—and how they want to communicate it. And as works of art, films should remain in their original forms, untouched, unedited, unsanitized. If a particular film's content is too objectionable to certain viewers, those viewers shouldn't watch that film. Simple as that.

There are a number of movies I'd like my sons to see … some day. But for now (they're 15 and 13 years old), they're just not ready for those movies. A few that come to mind include The Passion of The Christ, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler's List. Great movies, but my boys aren't yet mature enough for them.

I'd never consider showing my sons "sanitized" versions of these films. If you remove the violence and bloodiness of The Passion, what's the point of watching it? The scourging and crucifixion were the very definition of "graphic violence," so why pretend it was anything less? (Mel Gibson apparently agreed, and sued CleanFlicks for cutting three minutes from his film.)

If you excise the violence and bad language from Private Ryan, you lose the reality of the "war is hell" scenario so vividly depicted in that film. If you sanitize Schindler, you don't fully appreciate the horrors of those historic events—or see the total brutality and heinous nature of the Nazi regime.

OK, those are extreme, R-rated examples. Some might object by saying, "Yes, but what about all the PG and PG-13 movies that are 'ruined' by just one or two objectionable scenes? Cut those out, and you don't really lose anything from the movie, so it's not that big a deal."

Article continues below

I hear that objection loud and clear, especially as a parent. My wife and I have seen many movies where we've thought, "Rats, if only they hadn't included that, we'd love to show this to our boys."

I've got two solutions for that scenario. One is simple enough: We wait for our sons to get a little older and more mature, and then consider showing them the movie.

A prime example: Raiders of the Lost Ark, my favorite movie of all time. My boys begged to see it when they were very young, and I couldn't wait for them to watch it. But because of certain intense scenes, I waited till they were about 9 or 10 before letting them see the movie.

Even then—and this brings me to my second solution—I did a wee bit of "editing" myself. Not to the DVD itself, but in how I showed it to my sons. For example, in one scene, Marion tells Indiana Jones that from now on, "I'm your G-- d--- partner!" When we first showed our boys the movie, I hit the mute button at that moment, told them she was saying some bad words, and we moved on. And we fast-forwarded through a couple of the more visually intense scenes while I said, "Some Nazis get melted in this part, and it's pretty scary and gross, so we'll watch that another time. A guy's head explodes here; it's creepy and disgusting; maybe another day."

You might ask, "What's the difference, then, between you doing the editing and having a company do that editing for you? Either way, you're shielding them from certain content."

There are a couple of key differences. First is this: I know my sons, and they don't. My wife and I want to be the ones deciding what they can, and can't, watch. If we decide they're ready for exploding heads but not to hear the Lord's name in vain (or vice versa), that's our call, and nobody else's.

Also, if an outside company edits that stuff out, it robs us of a potential "teaching moment." After a couple of years, we decided to let our boys could hear Marion use God's name in vain. And at that moment, I hit "pause" and we talked: "Did you hear what Marion said? How did that make you feel? Did that make the movie any better? Why or why not? Do you ever hear other kids say that at school? What's wrong with saying those words? What does God say about it?" And so forth. It made for a great time of teaching and discussion—arguably more powerful than simply sitting down and reading them the Third Commandment.

Article continues below

I can't imagine having such a teaching moment with an edited version of Raiders of the Lost Ark: "Hey guys, at this point in the original version, Marion uses God's name in vain. If you heard her say that, how would that have made you feel?" Uhh, it just doesn't work nearly as effectively.

A second major difference between me doing the "self-edit" and letting a company do it for me is simply my original argument: No one should tamper with the work of art itself. Individuals and families can choose how (or if) they view those works of art, but the art itself should remain intact, as the artist created and intended it.

Picture it this way: Go to a museum that includes Renaissance art, and you're going to see a lot of naked people in paintings and statues. You'll see debauchery. And if you could "hear" the paintings talk, I'm sure you'd hear some bawdy language. So what do you do? Do you want someone to alter the art itself, to put some boxer shorts on that statue or some strategically placed Post-It notes on that painting?

Of course not. If you find those things offensive—whether to yourself or to your children—you simply avoid those works of art and find your way to other parts of the museum instead. You've done the "editing" yourself, which is exactly the way to do it. And then, you bring the kids back when they're older.

Same thing with movies.

By the way, our strategy seems to be working with our sons. We want to equip them to make discerning choices about movies, and they're starting to get it.

On a number of occasions, we've seen the evidence. As recently as last week, my older son came upstairs from his basement room and told me that while channel surfing, he came across a movie on the Sci-Fi Channel that looked entertaining. Then he said something that was music to my ears: "But there was too much sex and stuff, so I changed the channel."

Good for him. And he's never seen a "sanitized" movie in his life.

What do you think of this issue? E-mail us with your thoughts.