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VidAngel Changes Course With New Netflix and Amazon Filtering Service

VidAngel is launching a new service to filter offensive content on Amazon and Netflix, opening a new front in the long-running battle over the sanitizing of Hollywood movies.

The company, based in Provo, Utah, launched in 2014 with the goal of making mainstream movies more accessible to faith-based audiences. The original service used DVD copies of Hollywood releases to filter out language and nudity. But in December, a federal judge ordered VidAngel to shut down at the request of Disney, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros., which have argued that the unauthorized service violates their copyrights.

VidAngel is still fighting that battle in federal appeals court. But in the meantime, it is also launching its new service to allow subscribers to watch “clean” content on Netflix, Amazon and HBO Go.

“This announcement is the culmination of something we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Neal Harmon, VidAngel’s CEO, tells Variety. “People have been without filtering services for months, and we’re launching this service because our customers are asking for it.”

According to VidAngel, the company had about a million users at the time it was shut down. The company will now seek to sign up its customers to the new service. In a promotional video, the company compares its service to a parent fast-forwarding to prevent their kids from seeing foul language, violence or sexual material.

“We don’t force directors to change their scenes,” the narrator says. “We just let families mute and skip those scenes like they would with a remote. A remote isn’t censorship. It’s choice.”

Harmon and his chief legal counsel, David Quinto, contend that the new service resolves the copyright concerns raised by the studios. The studios alleged that VidAngel’s old service competed unfairly with licensed streaming services. VidAngel was streaming movies that were available on DVD but not on Netflix.

To use the new service, which will cost $7.99 per month, subscribers must first have a valid subscription to one of the major streaming services. Quinto says this will be a net benefit to both the studios and the streaming services.

“It removes all the economic harms that Disney claimed it was suffering as a result of our prior service,” Quinto says. “There would be no economic reason for the streaming services to complain. VidAngel would be driving more traffic to them.”

Nevertheless, VidAngel plans to tread carefully. The company was held in contempt and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine in January for continuing to operate its old service for two weeks after an injunction was issued ordering it to shut down. VidAngel intends to go to federal court and seek a determination that the new service does not violate the terms of the injunction. Until then, it will not offer any content owned by the plaintiff studios.

As to the streaming services, Harmon says his team has had “encouraging” discussions with executives at Netflix and Amazon. However, the services have not given their blessing, and it is not clear how they will react. In the Netflix terms of service, customers agree not to “insert any code or product or manipulate the content of the Netflix service in any way.”

“Their contracts don’t allow them to officially sanction what we’re doing,” Harmon says.

With the old service, the studios did not have an easy technical way to block VidAngel, forcing them to go to court. But it’s possible that the streaming services could alter their interface in such a way to thwart filtering.

“They could make our lives very difficult if they wanted to,” he says. “At the end of the day we believe the user should have the control here.”

Harmon says he’s grown frustrated that studios claim to support filtering for family audiences, but have not been willing to negotiate a license with VidAngel.

ClearPlay offers a licensed filtering service for DVDs and computers, but is not available for TV streaming.

“The studios have said all along that they are OK with filtering,” Harmon says. “But their actions have shown that they’re only OK with a broken version of filtering.”

Update: Netflix is out with a statement. “We have not endorsed or approved the VidAngel technology,” a spokesperson says. The company declines to say what it will do about it, if anything.

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