Family Movie Act of 2005—Legalizing Technology to Skip Film Parts

This morning I blogged on the criminal law part of the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act. Now, I’ll discuss the Family Movie Act of 2005, which allows technology to make parts of a film imperceptible (let’s call it film skipping). I have conflicting feelings about the film skipping part of the law.

Normally, I favor anything that limits the currently too-expansive rights of copyright holders or create new rights to exploit copyrighted works, so my inclination is to favor this law.

However, do we need this law? Movie owners will provide alternative versions of films when those versions are profitable, i.e., the market for the alternative version is large enough to justify the expense. We already see this in a number of contexts: sanitized versions for airplanes or broadcast TV, “director’s cuts,” translated/dubbed versions, etc.

Admittedly, there are some situations where movie owners will not create profitable alternatives, such as where directors have enough clout to control film editing and they object to a particular version. I’m not sure if it’s the best social policy to respect the director’s vision on this, but I suspect the number of decisions inconsistent with profit maximization are relatively small (either on an absolute or relative basis).

Otherwise, this law addresses the problem of unprofitable market niches—where there’s a demand for sanitized films that the movie owners aren’t pursuing because it’s not profitable. This law liberates those markets that are being stifled by the copyright’s monopoly, and that should be a good thing.

Nevertheless, this still doesn’t cure my discomfort. Part of that is attributable to the nagging feeling that this law remains just another form of special interest legislation. In this case, a small number of entrepreneurs, most notably ClearPlay, have a business model that required this law. Fortunately for them, their business model overlaps with the moral agendas of some members of Congress. But this is just another form of rent-seeking, and I hate to support that!

Where does that leave me? As far as I can tell, the law means that some Utah residents will now feel comfortable watching Saving Private Ryan. If that’s the principal effect, I guess I’m happy, but it’s hard to believe this was the most valuable use of Congress’ time.