Smith urges ClearPlay, showbiz to settle tiff

WASHINGTON — A key Republican pol laid down the law Thursday, threatening the studios and their legal opponent ClearPlay with legislation if they do not resolve their court battle in the next few weeks.

Studios and directors are trying to prevent ClearPlay and other businesses from selling software products that sanitize sex and violence out of films, and the two sides have been fighting it out in the courts since 2002. In recent weeks, the legal negotiations have been making progress, showbiz sources said.

But the two sides aren’t moving fast enough for Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee on intellectual property. Smith and several other pols on both sides of the aisle support ClearPlay’s right to offer consumers sanitized versions of movies as a way of giving parents more control over what their children watch at home.

Smith held a controversial hearing Thursday about the issues involved in the dispute, which many in Hollywood regarded as an attempt to bolster ClearPlay’s side. The studios refused to send a rep to testify and the Directors Guild of America first agreed to show up, then bowed out once it saw that the witness list included ClearPlay prexy Bill Aho and two experts on the impact of sex and violence in the media on kids.

MPAA topper Jack Valenti offered to come home from Cannes to testify, but Smith declined, arguing that he wanted a studio head instead.

Marjorie Hines, an NYU law professor and First Amendment advocate, was added to the roster the afternoon before the hearing as a witness sympathetic to showbiz concerns.

Backing parental control

During the hearing, Smith repeatedly argued for the rights of parents to control the content that comes into their homes.

He issued a stern warning at the hearing conclusion. “If the negotiations do not produce a result in the next couple of weeks, the chairman and I are prepared to exercise our right to offer legislation,” Smith said.

Even if Smith writes a bill, it would have little chance of seeing any real action this year with such limited time left on the legislative calendar in the House.

Showbiz allies Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) argued that the mere act of holding the hearing amounted to undue congressional pressure on an ongoing legal dispute.

For his part, Aho argued that his company’s product does not physically alter DVDs in any way because the technology simply filters the sex and violence out as if a person watching was pressing a skip button or covering their eyes during objectionable scenes.

“It does not add or dub content,” he argued. “This is a solution that parents want.”

Instead of empowering parents, Hines countered that the new technology amounted to censorship. Parents educating their children about “bad things in life” is a much better way to ensure that they grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults, she said.

During a colorful moment, Berman recited an edited version of Aho’s testimony that completely distorted the message.

“I don’t think you like my edits,” Berman sneered. “Do you understand why directors don’t like your editing? Wouldn’t you consider suing them for defamation (if they edited your works in this way)?”

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