Not So Family Friendly: How VidAngel Violated Federal Laws Trying to Censor Studio Films

Americans spend more at the box office to watch movies than any the citizens of any other country. Thanks to advances in technology, Americans can watch movies at all hours of the day on a plethora of devices. In fact, most Americans would rather watch movies at home on a small-screen than actually go to the movie theater. Streaming services have chipped away at the number of movies Americans purchase on DVD and Blu-ray, but watching movies on a disk is still commonplace. While Americans certainly enjoy relaxing and putting on a movie, most movies do not appeal to everyone. Some people enjoy action movies, others prefer comedies, another group gravitates towards horror movies and those are just three of the many genres that movies can be grouped into. In addition to being divided by genre, movies are also rated based on what age group the film is appropriate for. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) assigns ratings based on factors like how violent the movie is, whether it contains drug use, and if there is sexual content.

Americans can refer to the MPAA’s ratings when deciding if a movie is appropriate for the audience they have in mind, yet sometimes the rating is not representative of the entire movie. In an attempt to let viewers the freedom censor their own movies as they see fit, VidAngel, a movie distribution and streaming company headquartered in Palo Alto, California, started allowing subscribers to filter out scenes in 2014. The company sells viewers a movie, allows them to edit out scenes they deem inappropriate or would rather not watch, and buys the movie back before making it available to stream. On its quest to make censorship a personal decision, VidAngel ran into a number of copyright issues. Disney, Lucasfilm, Twentieth Century Fox, and Warner Brothers filed a federal lawsuit against VidAngel in 2016 for circumventing copyright protection and unlicensed video streaming.

The federal district judge that heard the case granted the studios a preliminary injunction that stopped VidAngel from allowing subscribers to alter movies and subsequently stream them. Preliminary injunctions are extraordinary remedies and one was issued in this case because VidAngel’s activities were causing the studios immediate and irreparable harm. The basis for the studios’ argument was the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). By circumventing the encryption on movie discs, the studios assert that VidAngel “gained unauthorized access to the content” and violated the DMCA. Furthermore, the studios argue that streaming the altered content for online viewers violates their exclusive right to “reproduce and publicly perform” the films. VidAngel responded to the allegations by claiming its actions were protected by the effort to censor a movie, the decryption must be authorized in advance.

After its opponents were granted the preliminary injunction, VidAngel appealed the decision from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to the 9th Circuit. In an opinion written by Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz and released on August 24th of this year, the 9th Circuit affirmed the district judge’s decision to grant the preliminary injunction. The opinion noted that VidAngel’s FMA defense would likely not succeed on its merits, but that the studios’ DMCA claim would. Judge Hurwitz added that VidAngel’s approach would “create a ‘giant loophole’ in copyright law.” In addition to creating a legal loophole, a decision in favor of VidAngel would cost studios large amounts of revenue and damage relationships with licensees.

The 9th Circuit’s decision was a victory for Hollywood over unauthorized movie viewers, but VidAngel does not fit the mold of the typical movie pirate. Instead of making movies free to view, VidAngel wants to give families the ability to tailor them to certain age demographics. The executive team behind VidAngel is not content with the 9th Circuit’s decision and it looks like a possible appeal to the Supreme Court may follow.

Chief executive Neal Harmon responded to the 9th Circuit’s opinion by saying, “On the legal front, we are just getting started” and followed that up by adding “We will fight for a family’s right to filter modern technology all the way.”

It is unclear whether the Supreme Court would grant certiorari to hear the VidAngel matter, but it would seem like the current filtering method the company uses would once again get struck down. Electing to permit the unauthorized alteration of studio films would not only cause havoc in Hollywood, but also create a legal gray area that actually allows third parties to tamper with many forms of media without express consent. Rather than engage in risky activity, families should just stick to the MPAA’s rating system. If parents really want to show part of a movie to their young children, they can always fast forward.