Steven Soderbergh Fought To Make Re-Editing Films Illegal; Now He's Re-Editing Famous Films

from the the-rules-don't-apply-to-me dept

First off, I should say that I absolutely love the idea of people (especially experts) taking a classic movie and re-editing it. In the past, we’ve written about actor Topher Grace’s apparently legendary re-edit of Episodes I, II and III of Star Wars into a single film. Only a few people have seen it, at private showings held by Grace. I find it unfortunate that we’ll never really be able to see it, because Grace realizes that it would likely get taken down quickly by Disney/Lucasfilm. Indeed, when some amateurs tried to do the same thing, it disappeared quickly.

Thus, it’s interesting and amazing that famed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has apparently been re-editing classic movies and posting them online. Last year, he re-edited Psycho, Heaven’s Gate and Raiders of the Lost Ark. For whatever reason this hasn’t gotten too much attention until yesterday, when he also released his re-edit of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I think this is wonderful — and a great way to show off some creative editing ideas (and also just how much editing truly makes a movie).

But here’s the weird bit: Steven Soderbergh, as much as I admire him as a filmmaker, is a bit of a copyright maximalist, who has fought for stricter copyright laws, greater punishment and (get this) against the right of anyone but the director to make edits of films.

In 2009, Soderbergh, representing the Director’s Guild of America, testified before Congress that piracy was killing Hollywood and stricter punishment was needed. He was pushing (strongly) for the “three strikes” model that was just showing up in France (only to be abandoned a few years later as a complete and utter failure). In his testimony, Soderbergh pushed the idea of kicking people off the internet entirely for a year if they get three strikes:

Well, when you go into Target and shoplift, there is a security guy from Target that catches you, and then they make a decision, whether or not they are going to take you to the police and prosecute you. At the very least, you are not allowed to go into Target anymore. And I just feel like we are in a similar situation, that there aren?t enough police officers in the world to sit at Target and Wal-Mart, and all the places where crimes are being committed. It wouldn?t be very difficult for us, if we were given, you know, this ability to identify the people who are making it easiest to transmit this copyrighted material, and if we had some sort of, you know, graduated mechanism along the lines of the French model.

First, they are contacted through the Internet. Then they are contacted through the mail. Then the third time they get pulled for a year.

Later in his testimony, he more or less admitted that he didn’t really understand what was going on in France, even though his main message was we should do the same thing here (so it sounds like the DGA just told him to go and “say this”… but, still…). Of course, he also jokes about having decoy files so that when people download them it “wreaks havoc” on downloaders’ computers (but rightly notes that “a very, very bright Dutch teenager… would figure out how to break that encryption.”)

But the even crazier issue is that Soderbergh was the leading name in the lawsuit against CleanFlicks, a company that tried to re-edit movies to make them more palatable to “religious” audiences (i.e., taking out any scenes or dialog CleanFlicks believed to be offensive or blasphemous. The way it worked was you first had to buy the movie yourself (so valid purchase was made), and then you sent it to CleanFlicks which would send you back an edited version. In that lawsuit, CleanFlicks lost. The judge in that case noted directly that he did not believe that fair use applied to re-editing films. The lawsuit is basically CleanFlicks against filmmakers, with Soderbergh at the top:

CleanFlicks was going to appeal that ruling, but basically ran out of money and just gave up. Either way, Soderbergh’s name is on a ruling that argues that re-editing flicks is not fair use and is clearly copyright infringement.

Huh.

In that ruling, the judge argued that re-edits were not truly transformative, but more important, rejected the argument that these edits did not impact the market for the video, saying:

The argument has superficial appeal but it ignores the intrinsic value of the right to control the content of the copyrighted work which is the essence of the law of copyright. Whether these films should be edited in a manner that would make them acceptable to more of the public playing them on DVD in a home environment is more than merely a matter of marketing; it is a question of what audience the copyright owner wants to reach.

Frankly, I think the judge got this very, very wrong, but it’s fascinating in this context. Because this appears to be a case where the judge (ruling in favor of Soderbergh) is clearly saying what Soderbergh is doing now is very much copyright infringement.

With the edit of Raiders, Soderbergh noted, “This posting is for educational purposes only.” While we can argue over whether or not that impacts the fair use analysis, the whole thing does seem bizarre.

Once again, we see a case of a copyright maximalist, who argues for stronger penalties for infringement, who then ignores all of that when he wants to make use of others’ content himself. This seems to happen quite frequently.

Again, I think it’s great that Soderbergh is making these edits and posting them for everyone to see (and also discussing some of his thinking). That’s awesome. I think he should be allowed to do so. I just find it strange (and somewhat hypocritical) that this is coming from the very same Steven Soderbergh who has fought for greater punishment for copyright infringers and whose name sits atop a court ruling that directly says re-editing films the way you’d like to see them is infringing.

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Comments on “Steven Soderbergh Fought To Make Re-Editing Films Illegal; Now He's Re-Editing Famous Films”

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83 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Once again, we see a case of a copyright maximalist, who argues for stronger penalties for infringement, who then ignores all of that when he wants to make use of others’ content himself. This seems to happen quite frequently.

What all these maximalist publishers etc. really want is a law that says they are the only people allowed to publish content, While the politicians might agree with them the realize that doing so openly would cost them their job due to voter revolt. The politicians prefer controlled publication over real free speech, as it make it easier for them to do what they want while in power.

JP Jones (profile) says:

Re: Re:

What all these maximalist publishers etc. really want is a law that says they are the only people allowed to publish content

This is it exactly. See, it’s copyright infringement when an amateur makes edits. But for a professional it’s clearly transformative art.

Sort of like it’s murder when a civilian does it, but for police it’s clearly self-defense.

Too soon? =)

Anonymous Coward says:

So when TV stations bowdlerize a movie to make sure the FCC doesn’t fine them for airing naughty words and nudity on public television, it’s okay because they paid the studios to license the film for public broadcast, but when individual copies are bowdlerized for private viewing, it’s magically infringing even though the customers could do it themselves if they just had the time, skill, and software to do it.

Anonymous Coward says:

He changed his mind?

I wonder if he might have actually changed his mind? You know, sometimes when new ideas are presented, you are quick to dismiss them. But then having been exposed to the idea, maybe over time, you give it more thought and eventually come to the conclusion it is a good idea.

If that is the case here, it would be nice if he would come out and state that he changed his mind and even give his reasoning.

Brian (profile) says:

The disclaimer on the ‘Raiders’ remake states: “Note: This posting is for educational purposes only”.

But the purpose of the website is to sell you merchandise. The website is even titled “A one-of-a-kind marketplace from Steven Soderbergh”. It says this a few lines above the ‘educational’ disclaimer.

I would argue that the post is not ‘educational’, but rather a marketing ploy to get people into his commerce website (landing page).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

How are you not destroying the house? There is only one physical copy of his house. Without massive effort on the owners part, it will never be what it was before you defaced it.

When you are working with film and digital media you are working on a copy of the original. Nothing you do to the copy effects the original work.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Really? So all the other, untouched copies of the work have been magically altered as well? That’s astounding technology!!

I don’t see how what CleanFlicks was doing is remotely analogous. They were making a reedit purely for private use. They were not broadcasting or distributing the reedits. They reedited copies that were legally purchased, too, so there is literally zero harm to the artists through their actions: no public “defacement” took place, and no sales were lost.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

Based on the silly insults you are tossing about, I’m guessing I’m talking Lowery or one of his sycophants. So let me toss out a music related analogy:

I purchase a copy of “Low”, but I don’t care for the bass line very much so I set my audio equalizer on my stereo to cut out the low end and record that for my use. How is this different than re-editing a purchased DVD for my personal use (aside from violating copyright law by circumventing the DVD DRM, of course)?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Are you…

a) Trolling by being intentionally stupid?

b) Under the misconception that re-editing a film means breaking in and taking a pair of scissors to the masters, while also erasing all existing copies of the original?

or c) Genuinely unfamiliar with the difference between physical objects and infinite digital copies, like maybe you were raised in some sort of skinner box designed to prevent your brain from developing a normal understanding of object permanence or something?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

How was the original artistic statement destroyed? I am genuinely not understanding this argument. Also, what does any of this have to do with piracy?

Also, this is a clear abuse of copyright law. Copyright law is not intended to ensure that nobody “destroys artistic statements” in this way. What CleanFlicks was doing has a clear analogy with books. If I started a service where you could send me a book and I’ll black out all the dirty parts and send it back to you, that is (and should be) entirely legal. It strikes me as very bizarre that it would be different when the same thing is done with movies.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

The original artistic statement. I know you pirate-types are dense when it comes to art, but you really should understand a basic concept like that.

That’s not a zero sum game. The original artistic statement remains with the original and the transformative artistic statement is with the transformed work. Nothing is subtracted there, only added.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Your comment triggered a thought that could explain this “destroy artistic statement” business. I think the commenter may mean that it destroys the artistic statement made in the copy that results. I hope so, anyway, because I can’t make any sense of it otherwise.

Assuming that my interpretation is correct, my response is: so what? The people using the service actively want that amount of destruction and pay a fee to get it. Nobody is being deceived, and nobody is suffering a loss. People who don’t want the artistic statement to be “destroyed” simply don’t use the service.

In effect, what that commenter is saying is that artists should be able to have complete and total control over all copies of their artistic product. I disagree with that notion: in a very deep and real sense, original artistic intent is meaningless to people who enjoy the art. What matters is what the art means to them, not to the artist. If an artist can’t handle that fact, that’s a problem with the artist, not with everyone else.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

In effect, what that commenter is saying is that artists should be able to have complete and total control over all copies of their artistic product.

Yes, I also think that is what the commenter is implying.

The funny thing is that artists have never really had that kind of control over copies. You ever hear of anyone being prosecuted for writing in the margins of a book they bought or for tearing pages out to use for cat litter?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“The original artistic statement.”

Given that this remains in the copies of the original version that remain available no matter how many times it’s edited, how is this affected in any way?

Anyway, this must surely mean you’re a huge opponent of the Weinsteins, given that they routinely re-edit and re-dub foreign movies before release in the US with no involvement from the original creators, and often also while blocking imports of the originals. For profit, no less!

You must despise those guys, correct? Not to do so would be hypocrisy of the highest order if that’s the argument you’re going with.

“you pirate-types”

Why do you feel the need to lie about the people you’re talking to? Does your argument fall apart when you’re addressing the real person instead of your poorly constructed scarecrow?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Frankly I’m amazed he haven’t heard more noise from the real estate industry about the internet. I mean, it’s one thing that people can download movies and songs, but now that houses are infinite with a marginal cost of zero, I’m not really sure how all those developers and agents are staying in business. I mean personally, when I want a house, I either stream it or get it by torrent. I know I should just pay for Netflix, but its lineup is still missing a lot of the houses I want to live in.

I gotta say, though: some of the mashup and remix houses out there on YouTube and as bootlegs and such are pretty great, and you’re selling them short as an art form. Really this is the way houses have worked since thousands of years ago when bards spread houses around the countryside — technology has just made it more immediate.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Why is the fact that a house cannot be copied infinitely at no cost, while a digital copy of a movie can be copied without cost “nonsense”? Do you think you could change a copy of Mike’s house while the original stayed intact without outlaying any money? Are things different the the fictional reality you tend to inhabit?

Or is it that, as ever, real facts don’t match your argument, so you invent new facts to avoid changing your ridiculous stance?

Anonymous Coward says:

Could Cleanflicks

I have a lot of “religious” friends who used Cleanflicks. After Cleanflicks died, they all switched to ClearPlay. With ClearPlay, Instead of sending the disks out to be edited, users download filters and install them on a special DVD player. Users select the type of content they don’t want to see (violence, sex, language, etc.) and the DVD player applies the appropriate mask, skipping forward at the appointed times. It’s basically like hitting fast forward when you get to a part you want to skip.

Using this system, ClearPlay seemed to get around the (bogus) copyright issues the CleanFlicks folks stumbled over by shifting from a copy provided by the company to a mask that is created by the company but applied by the user. However, I wonder, in light of the Aereo ruling and the “if it looks like a duck” logic it relied on, is this sort of technical work around also in danger?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Could Cleanflicks

Ignore the SC ruling, that’s important, but negligible compared to the real problem, which is that any system, company, or ‘technical workaround’ is in danger if someone who has enough money cares to destroy it.

If you(or your opponent) have/has enough money, legality itself gets turned into a technicality, as it doesn’t matter if something is legal according to the law, if it costs more money than you have to defend it from someone determined to see it destroyed.

Anonymous Coward says:

it doesn’t matter who is doing what to/with films, as long as it isn’t ‘the man on the street, member of the ordinary public, they are able to do it! no one gives a toss and no one will be arrested or sued or anything else. in fact no one from any of the studios or their shit accomplices will go anywhere near them or make any comments. when it is you or me, the ordinary customer, the ones that the studios rely on totally, they would be all over us like a rash!!

AndyRJ says:

there's a big difference in Clean Flicks and what Soderbergh did here

Clean Flicks is a commercial venture, these Soderbergh re-cuts are ‘fan edits’ Most filmmakers allow the fan edits of their work to live on the internet. Even George Lucas doesn’t go after people that do edits of the various Star Wars films.
And it also should be noted that Soderbergh has the blessing of the filmmakers/producers/studios of the edits he’s done..hence why none of them have been taken down. Christine K. is aware of the re-cut of 2001 and is fine with it being out there.
All of you stop your whining and go back and finish your screenplays.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: there's a big difference in Clean Flicks and what Soderbergh did here

But Clean Flicks is providing a service to people who have legally purchased the film and have every right to watch it as they choose. It’s not making money by selling the film, and it’s not impinging on the original or its market — in fact, it’s expanding the market for many films. Every time someone buys a film to send in to get a Clean Flicks edit, the creators/sellers of that film are making their normal cut of money.

So tell me: why — other than sheer pettiness — does it matter if Clean Flicks is making money too?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: there's a big difference in Clean Flicks and what Soderbergh did here

“Clean Flicks is a commercial venture, these Soderbergh re-cuts are ‘fan edits’ Most filmmakers allow the fan edits of their work to live on the internet.”

But CleanFlicks was not allowing their edited versions to live on the internet. They weren’t distributing the edited version to anyone other than the owner of the DVD at all.

You’re right, the two situations are not completely analogous. In terms of copyright law, what Soderbergh did is even more questionable than what CleanFlicks did.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: We need this capability

I actually liked the hobbit movies, though not as much as Lord Of The Rings…

This is a good point, though. Of course, there’s a market for the films and a market for the inevitable extended editions, and whatever repackaging inevitably occurs (I’m expecting a massive box set of both series once the new one’s out on Blu)..

However, it occurs to me that there’s also demand for a re-edit of the 3 films to excise all the extraneous stuff taken from the Silmarillion, LotR appendices and new additions, and just have a 2-3 hour movie that’s a straight adaptation of the original novel. The demand will still be there even if Peter Jackson refuses to allow such a thing.

In other words, this is yet another case where other people will fill the gaps left unfulfilled by official means. It’s again up to the studios to recognise this rather than launch further attacks on their own audiences because they want to consume media in unapproved ways.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: We need this capability

now wait just a darn tootin’ minute…

IF there is such a thing as the diminution of a previous work by someone transforming it, then at least the hobbit movies (and possibly the LOTR movies) are DEFINITELY ‘guilty’ of GROSS and egregious ‘tampering’ with original works…

LOVE hobbit/LOTR books, read a million times… movies of LOTR were done fairly well, but ‘transformed’ a BUNCH of shit that i did NOT appreciate (the tacked on ‘romance’ with aragorn and whats-her-name, TAKING TOM BOMBADIL COMPLETELY OUT = APOSTASY, etc); WASN’T that a ‘transformation’ which completely altered the original writer’s (tolkein’s) ‘artistic statement’ ? ? ?
i think so, did you bitch about that ?
i think not…

i have NOT gone to the hobbit movies for several reasons: they make a fairly simple story into THREE movies ? fuck you, jackson… they essentially used the hobbit story as a jumping off point to make a prequel to the LOTR, which the hobbit both was and wasn’t… fuck you, jackson… they turn some parts of the story on its head, for ____ reasons ? fuck you, jackson… STOP significantly ‘re-writing’ what was done and DO THAT…

also, selma sucks because it turns his story on its head… the story was good enough as is without making LBJ out to be THE enemy of civil rights legislation when closer to the OPPOSITE was true… that just plain sucks, THERE WAS NO REASON to do that, other than the writer/director hates LBJ for some reason… fuck her, too…

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 We need this capability

Wow… whatever you need to take to calm down and adjust to reality, do it. None of those movies replaced the original books. None of them were the first time the books were adapted, and none of them will be the last. Tolkien’s printed words were unaffected each time.

They were adaptations of the original work, and very few films stick perfectly to the source. They always change things, remove subplots, combine or invent characters, add or alter events to improve narrative flow for the new medium, etc. Some things that work perfectly fine in a novel are either hard or impossible to pull off in a cinematic form to the satisfaction of a wider cinema audience (Bombadil being a prime example, like it or not).

You’re apparently in the market I mentioned for edited versions of the films to remove the additional content and characters shoehorned into the latest movies, so there’s that. But none of Jackson’s work affects anything that Tolkien wrote on the page. In fact, they actually get more people to pick up his work in the first place.

“THERE WAS NO REASON to do that, other than the writer/director hates LBJ for some reason”

Or, because history tends to get simplified in order to dramatise events. Subtlety may be forgotten, especially if you’re being manipulative and trying to tell a morally simplistic tale as Hollywood is wont to do. This happens constantly, and you’re far from the first person to be annoyed by the depiction of a real character for dramatic purposes.

But this is what happens. Braveheart fucked up historical events royally, but that was still a pretty good film with the story it was telling, same with Gladiator. Hell, some films depict Americans as being the heroes who win the day without crediting the existence of other forces, while in reality it was the British or other nationalities (U-571 comes to mind). Other films will again combine characters, simplify timelines and events. This is a regular occurrence, and some people get angry (Egypt’s recent reaction to Exodus: Gods And Kings, for example). Often a result of trying to simplify things enough so that enough people will watch the end product and recoup the massive budgets for these things, sadly.

I haven’t personally watched Selma, but you appear to be taking issue with the entire film-making process, especially with regard to taking complex political events and/or fictional narratives and adapting them for the screen. Might I suggest that perhaps cinema is not the medium you with to involve yourself with, especially with regard to adaptations? No matter what our resident moron has to say, you still have access to the original text.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: We need this capability

“though not as much as Lord Of The Rings…”

Although I enjoyed the theatrical cut of the LotR movie trilogy, it didn’t blow me away (and certain critical emotional points in the books were glossed over in the movies, which irked me a lot).

However, the (twice as long as the original) extended cuts that were released on DVD? Those were truly excellent. My real complaint about LotR is that they should have been six movies rather than three. The story couldn’t be adequately told in only three movies.

Anonymous Coward says:

With the edit of Raiders, Soderbergh noted, “This posting is for educational purposes only.” While we can argue over whether or not that impacts the fair use analysis

A real educational purpose would impact it, but simply stating that doesn’t make it true and probably doesn’t impact the analysis much. It looks to me like meaningless boilerplate similar to “no copyright intended”.

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