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Wal-Mart Begins Selling Movie-Filtering DVD Players

13 Apr, 2004 By: Holly J. Wagner

Wal-Mart this week began selling RCA DVD players enabled with ClearPlay technology, which lets viewers choose four levels of content to filter out of the movies they watch.

ClearPlay's technology electronically reads the disc and mutes or fast-forwards past content the owner has identified as objectionable. The broad categories it addresses are graphic violence, sexual content and foul or impious language, but the units include 14 filter settings that can yield 16,384 custom configurations. ClearPlay does not offer filters for some movies when the potentially offensive content is too great a percentage of the film, such as Kill Bill Vol. 1, which streeted this week.

The technology is at the heart of a lawsuit filed in 2002 by eight studios, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and 16 of its prominent directors, who claim the company is violating copyrights by letting viewers edit what they see. The parties are awaiting a judgment from a federal court in Denver on ClearPlay's summary judgment request. The company also has an area on its Web site that accepts donations toward its legal expenses, and another area with a petition consumers can send to studio representatives.

The player has a $79 SRP, but Wal-Mart.com is advertising it for $69.84. It comes loaded with filters for 100 of the 600-plus films for which ClearPlay makes filters, including Spider-Man, Terminator 3 and Matrix Reloaded. Users can pay $4.95 a month or $49 a year for access to the complete library of filters, including new releases, or pay $40 for three years of access to filters for movies at least 90 days old.

“The good news is, it doesn't stop us from doing business,” said ClearPlay CEO Bill Aho. ClearPlay representatives have done demonstrations of the product for all the major studios, he added.

“I think, rightfully, the industry looked at this and said this is a technology we need to understand better. I think they will get more and more comfortable with the idea that this is a technology that is good for the industry and good for consumers,” he said.

So far, the studios and directors aren't budging.

“ClearPlay's software changes the very meaning and intent of both individual scenes and movies. Viewers may never know why a film wasn't thoughtful, compelling or funny and will attribute their lack of appreciation and understanding to the director and studio, instead of to the unknown editor in a ClearPlay cubicle,” a DGA spokesman said. “ClearPlay software edits movies to conform to ClearPlay's vision of a movie instead of letting audiences see and judge for themselves what writers wrote, what actors said and what directors envisioned. Ultimately, it is a violation of law and just wrong to profit from selling software that changes the intent of movies you didn't create and don't own.”

A Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) spokesman concurred.“We oppose any enterprise that alters or changes our copyrighted materials because those copyrights are important to us,” he said. While he would not comment on how ClearPlay's “digital fig leaf” differs from a V-chip, he said, “At the end of the day, what the viewers are seeing is not the films that our studios made or released.”

The legal maelstrom around sanitizing movies did not discourage RCA or parent company Thomson Media from incorporating the technology into one of its players, or retailer Wal-Mart from offering the player.

“Wal-Mart is a retailer and our role is simply to offer our customers a choice in the types of electronics merchandise they are looking for. This DVD player is simply another selection we're offering our customers in this category,” a Wal-Mart spokeswoman said. “The RCA progressive scan DVD Player with ClearPlay is available at walmart.com and will be available in select Wal-Mart store locations in mid-May,” although information was not available on whether the player would be offered at all stores or only in select markets. Kmart is also expected to offer the player in stores by the end of May.

“There are other retailers that are interested as well,” said Dave Arland, VP, U.S. corporate communications & government relations for RCA parent company Thomson. “There is a core issue here that is between ClearPlay and the directors guild that does not have anything to do with the technology as deployed in a consumer product or sold at retail. At a time when there has been a lot of discussion about the importance of parental control, this is just another way for parents to control what their kids see at home. We'll see if it's something that people will want to bring home.”

A spokesperson for Kmart did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

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