Hollywood Balks at High-Tech Sanitizers Photofest New technology can clean up popular films like "Titanic." By RICK LYMAN in today's New York Times LOS ANGELES, Sept. 18 — After months of watching a gradual proliferation of companies offering sanitized versions of Hollywood hits to sensitive or politically conservative consumers, movie studios and filmmakers have decided it is time to get a handle on this phenomenon. "This is very dangerous, what's happening here," said Jay D. Roth, national executive director of the Directors Guild of America. "This is not about an artist getting upset because someone dares to tamper with their masterpiece. This is fundamentally about artistic and creative rights and whether someone has the right to take an artist's work, change it and then sell it." The issue goes well beyond this small, growing market in cleaned-up movies, whether it's taking the violence out of "Saving Private Ryan" or the nude scenes from "Titanic." As the entertainment industry moves into the digital age, and as more movies and other entertainment forms are reduced to easily malleable electronic bits, the capability will grow for enterprising entrepreneurs to duplicate, mutate or otherwise alter them. "We're just beginning to understand that this is part of a wider issue," said Marshall Herskovitz, the veteran writer, director and producer. "As long as something exists as digital information, it can be changed. So as a society we have to come to grips with what the meaning of intellectual property will be in the future." To filmmakers, who point to a federal law that prohibits anyone from altering a creative work and then reselling it with the original title and artist's name attached, it is a simple question of artistic rights. "If people can take out stuff and do what they want with it and then sell it, it just completely debases the coinage," the director Michael Apted said. "You don't know what version of a film you're buying, frankly. I think it's ridiculous." To the studios the implications concern both copyright and branding. "This is all new to us," said Alan Horn, president of Warner Brothers. "We're all trying to understand it. But it doesn't sit well with me, frankly, because these people could go the other way, too, with more sex and more violence." To the companies involved in selling these altered versions — or software that does the altering for you — the question is one of consumer choice. "We leave it entirely up to consumers where their comfort level lies," said Breck Rice, a founder of the Utah company Trilogy Studios, whose MovieMask software can filter out potentially offensive passages. "People get to choose for themselves." At issue is a string of companies, based largely in Utah and Colorado, that offer edited videotapes and DVD's or software that allows users to play any DVD with the offensive passages automatically blocked. One of the earliest to enter this field, a Utah company called CleanFlicks, has a chain of rental stores that offer sanitized versions of more than 100 Hollywood films, like "The Godfather" and "Mulholland Drive." Video II offers what it calls E-rated films (cleaned up versions of box-office hits) at several dozen Albertson's retail stores in Utah. MovieMask has a different approach. Its software can be downloaded onto home computers and will shortly be available embedded into laptops and DVD players that can be connected directly to televisions. The software allows the consumer to watch more than three dozen possible versions of a movie, including the original one shown in theaters. It works only on films, about 75 so far, that have been watched and tagged by MovieMask editors. Both the numbers of such companies and their reach have expanded in just the last few months. One company, ClearPlay, already offers its software embedded into a $699 DVD player. Another, Family Shield Technologies, offers a set-top box for $239.99 it calls MovieShield that offers its own array of filters, including making the screen go blank during offensive moments. Although CleanFlicks has been operating for more than two years, it was not until MovieMask executives made a series of presentations around Hollywood in March that the issue came to the fore. "We came to show them what our technology was capable of doing, purely to grab their attention," Mr. Rice said. "It certainly did that." The directors were not pleased by what they saw. A swordfight from "The Princess Bride" (1987) was altered so it looked like the characters were using "Star Wars" light sabers. The scene from "Titanic" (1997) of Leonardo DiCaprio sketching a nude Kate Winslet has been altered by covering her with a digital corset. These are currently available from MovieMask but were intended to show the software's potential, Mr. Rice said. What it did, however, was to mobilize the directors and their organization to find a way to put a stop to this. Last month the owner of several CleanFlicks stores in Colorado filed suit against 16 top Hollywood directors, including Steven Spielberg, asking the court to declare that what CleanFlicks was doing was perfectly legal. The company argues that anyone who buys a work of art is free to alter it, and that CleanFlicks is only providing a service to those who have already purchased copies of the film or become members of its rental club. CleanFlicks officials did not return calls for comment today. But Jeff Aldous, a lawyer for the company, said it had no knowledge of the Colorado lawsuit before it was filed and did not support it. "We realize there's going to be an issue at some point in time that we've got to discuss," he said. Perhaps as early as this week the Directors Guild will file a response to the lawsuit, probably including some counterclaims. And for the first time, the major Hollywood studios, which have been strangely silent on this issue, may also support the action. Exactly why the studios have not joined the fray is not entirely clear. But several people involved in the talks between the studios and the directors and writers guilds said the problem was a difference of opinion among the studios about the whole issue. They said some felt that the proliferation of these companies showed that a market existed for sanitized products, so perhaps the studios themselves should get into that business. Others felt that the market was too small to be worth the costs, especially since some video chains had indicated they would stock only one version of a film to conserve precious shelf space. And still others were more worried about protecting their brands. "If you're a studio that's spent a lot of money developing a 'Spider-Man' brand, do you want to dilute it by having a `Spider-Man Lite' on the market competing with it?" asked an executive involved in the talks. Officials for the clean-movie companies point out that Hollywood already does release sanitized versions of movies to airlines and some television networks. But directors respond that those versions are made with input from the filmmakers. "That's exactly what we're trying to do here," said Mr. Rice of Trilogy Studios. "We want them to a part of our process, too. We believe that the technology is available today where everyone can win." And if the directors are upset about what they have seen so far, they probably will not like to hear that MovieMask just signed a contract with a product-placement company to insert products into existing films, perhaps even region by region. "The law as it stands now is just not sophisticated enough," Mr. Herskovitz said. "I think there won't be a satisfying solution until the laws are all rewritten."