Some Thought Experiments

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With regard to PUBLIC alteration of the work of an artist (the whole point of the CleanFlicks suit), perhaps a series of thought experiments may help elucidate:

You run across the works of G. Protestant Catholicbasher, who is a renowned Protestant theology and who has the very best explanation of grace you have ever read in your life. Included is this passage: "As a result, Catholics will not see heaven. They will not know the fruits of grace. They do not know God as God. They do not give Him sovereignty."

You decide that the work is really very good--the very best. But, it has a little problem on the Catholic side, so, to make it acceptable to your children (and to other children) you publish a version of the work, with the author's name attached that presents his arguments so:

"As a result, Catholics will see heaven. They will know the fruits of grace. They know God as God. They give Him sovereignty."

After all, in a work of two hundred pages you've excised six words for a total of sixteen letters. Surely not much of a change, and it does make the argument a lot more palatable for your audience than it was originally.

Case 2: A publisher of considerably less integrity than the OPC decides to publish the lyrics of the hymn Amazing Grace changing the line "that saved a wretch like me," to the more life-affirming and up-beat "saved and set me free." They attribute this change to the original author. (OCP had not done this in any older hymnals--so I do think they are a publisher with integrity, it something lacking in taste.)

Case 3: You've written a thousand line poem in praise of God, Country, Motherhood, Apple Pie and all things American. Within your poem are the following lines:

"It is not right to hate and fear
It is not right to judge by color
It is not right to despise another."

Your local hate-group reads the poem and decides it is absolutely perfect for their "Patriotism" issue, but to reach your audience and boost sales, it's necessary to remove nine letters, three "gratuitous" words leaving:

"It is right to hate and fear
It is right to judge by color
It is right to despise another."

But they leave your name on the poem and publish it in their blockbuster seller issue.

Case 4: A publisher, favoring the NAB for its clunky language and tin ear, decides that he would do everyone a favor and remove the famous Catholic bias against having fun and against sex by more closely attending to what the original author's intended for us to derive from their writings. Thus, every time the NAB descretely uses the biblical "know" or some other euphemism, our helpful publisher decides to use the vulgar Anglo-saxon fricative. He then publishes the book without noting this "minor" editorial adjustment to the text.

I think these illustrations get the point across. When anyone other than the author assumes the authorial role and changes the authorial intention and publishes that work as though representative of the thought of the author, then they are "bearing false witness." They are constructing a lie for one purpose or another. And usually they are profiting from that lie at the expense of another. For example G. Protestant Catholicbasher is drummed out of the Church of Anywhere but Rome. You are branded a racist. And the hymnist is accused of a lack of spine.

The CleanFlicks case is not about innocuous change. It is about a company usurping the role of the studio and deciding what should air and what should not without consultation with the film studio. These things are done on their own. People ask, "Well what about edits for television." The Licenser may grant permission for alterations to be made, they may demand a list of such alterations for approval before the work can be released. In short, they maintain ownership and control over how their work is represented.

Say I decided I liked the movie Chocolat (I didn't). But I sure didn't want Samuel to get a negative impression of the Church and I altered the film so he could see it. Within my own home, that is a question of my own integrity and for me to talk to God about. But say I let news of this slip and then started peddling the film to all my friends who really wanted a cleaned-up version. Part of the purpose, intent, and integrity of the film is the anti-Catholicism. To alter that and sell the work as the original does a number of injustices. (1) It misrepresents the film maker. (2) It steals another's work and profits from it. (3) It misinforms its recipients about the agenda of the artist from whom it came.

This last is one of the more insidious consequences of altering the film. Suddenly you've made an unacceptable director palatable. So now we'll go and see the next film. (What a shock that might turn out to be.)

What is at issue is the artist's control of his own work and the artist's right not to be misrepresented in any way--even in a way that we might think enhances the work.

I've been asked, "Well what's wrong with eliding a gratuitous sex scene?" My answer is, "You know the artist's mind and the work at hand well enough to know whether or not the scene is gratuitous." The whole point of Tristam Shandy is made by a "gratuitous sex scene" at the beginning of the book. No one, apart from the artist, has the standing to determine whether or not something is gratuitous to the point of altering the work in public. If, for your own enjoyment, you determine that it would be better not to view such a scene--that's a matter of personal choice. You probably aren't watching an art film any way. But to take that out and peddle it as the original without the artist's consent. . . I'm sorry, I know you'll disagree, but it just isn't right, and it may, depending upon extent and intent, be a sin.

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I don't have any disagreement with anything you've written. Really, I didn't have any major problems with what Kathy had originally written, save the part that I interpret as an anti-children rant. I don't completely agree with her, but it was the anti-child rant that really set me off. Maybe if I just edited that part out... :)

Dear Brandon,

I guess I did filter that out. What I heard was the passion of the
artist defending the art, and perhaps it comes off as anti-child. I know
that I am certainly not anti-child--and in fact, I applaud the efforts
of parents who care enough to keep their children away from materials
that are not appropriate for them. I see no problem at all with denying
a child access to ANYTHING a parent finds morally unacceptable
(assuming, for the moment, that the parent has a properly formed conscience.)

My passion is the same as Kathy's. There are some things that are
simply meant for an adult audience. If one deems that a work needs to be
altered to be fit for a child, perhaps what really needs to happen is
that child must be allowed to grow to a point where he or she can
understand the work as it stands. I can't help but think of those who want to
take the Witches out of Macbeth and who object to some of the
bawdier repartee of The Taming of the Shrew. Had they had their
ways, what would the Bard be now?




I really didn't have any major gripe with Kathy's complaints about modifying the content of movies, although I don't think that I completely agree with her. It was her "'Ode to a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of little old ladies" comment and the sarcastic stuff around it that set me off. To be fair, if the parents that are communicating with her really do view their children as impediments to living some sort of single lifestyle that they previously enjoied, then I might get frustrated too. I certainly have no problem with the concept that I am not going to be able to see certain movies with my kids. I certainly don't have the time to read many of the books, or do pursue many other leisure activities that I used to do before I had kids. (This summer, I backed down to a sub on the church softball league, although this has more to do with finishing school than my children). We only get 24 hours per day, and we can't take any of them back for a refund. I certainly liked her idea that Christians can't have it both ways: we're not called to some slightly more moral version of a secular lifestyle; we are called to complete conversion in every facet of our lives. TSO seems to think that I'm trying to stake out some sort of higher moral ground by my comments, but if he knew the depths of sin in which I fall, I don't think he would have that opinion of me. Or maybe he would just recognize me for the hyprocrite that I am, when I speak as if I know how to properly father my children.


The only real issue here, as far as I can tell, is that it is wrong to misrepresent a derivative work as the work of the original artist. It would be wrong for example to create a satire and deceive the public into thinking that the satire was the original work by the original artist. But the deception is what is wrong, not the creation of a derivative work.

Dear Zippy,

I think you have pinned the tail on the donkey for the most part, at least in so much as I am concerned--I don't know if Ms. Shaidle would agree. My problem is the inappropriate attribution of the altered work to the original artist AND the question of whether or not the original artist should share in the profits of mere "cleaning up."

There is as well a third point, and that is that for works not yet in the public domain, the artist's permission for any such alteration should be sought. In satire or parody, this is not necessary because another artist is creating a new work that plays off of or responds to the original. Here, while something new is created, it is new not in the addition of material but in the selection of detail--that is the second "artist" is not adding anything of their own other than the sensibility that goes into the correction. The new work is less "derivitive" as it is an "edit" of the original. The person seeking to do that edit should by law and by right seek the artist's permission to do so.

That need to seek permission lapses with the expiration of copyright. However, even with the lack of need for requesting permission--an altered work should never be presented as the original intent of the Author--duty requires one to acknowledge that changes have been made, even if such changes are minor--say normalizing orthography.

Thanks for pointing this out Zippy.



Steven, how do you feel about the hymns that have so commonly been modified over the years. You mentioned Amazing Grace, which seems to make the hymn more politically correct. What about "Faith of Our Fathers" (Frederick Faber's hymn about Catholics who died in the English Reformation, that is modified into a Protestant version and sung by Protestants, leaving out the verse about Mary's prayer bringing England back to the faith) -- and even Catholics usually leave out a verse that says how happy we would be if we, like they, died for God. On the opposite side, there is "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind", which is sung by Catholics and Protestants alike but is only the second part of a longer poem ("The Brewing of Soma"). "The Brewing of Soma" is anti-Catholic, and we leave out strange poetry that is opposed to insense and such things, but the part that is sung sounds just contemplative.

Hymns have been modified for centuries, and it is sometimes hard to even find a copy with all the original lyrics.

Although I would generally be very supportive of protecting an artist's rights, I am also supportive of the right to make some use of another person's work, esecially in the example of satire here mentioned, and in commentary and critique, and other fair use rights. Granted, there is a problem when you are misrepresenting someone else's message, as that goes beyond just the use of their work to misrepresenting the person's beliefs.

However, it is also interesting to realize that our way of looking at this is fairly new, and that in past centuries, it was not always as important to credit an artist or to protect the artist. Not until the twelfth century, for example, do we even have composers regularly putting their names on their music. Some of our best mystical writing was done by people who probably chose to leave their names off of it because they wanted their reward to be in heaven (perhaps examples might include "The Cloud of Unknowing" and the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius).

And there are some wonderful Catholic writings from the early 20th century that are hard to find now because the rights were sold to a publishing company that was sold to people who do not believe the same things as the original company and do not want those books published. They don't want to print them, they don't want to sell them to anyone who does want to print them, and the author is no longer around to complain. So the laws protecting the author actually work to prevent the author's work from being read.

Sometimes our laws protecting ownership of artistic work actually prevent the spread of the artist's ideas and concepts in the process of making them property. As a Catholic with an appreciation of the mystics, I am not sure protecting the work is always the best use of it.

Also, censorship of morally offensive material has a long history of acceptance where the artist created something for financial benefit and the work is more a product than a work of art. A lot of the gratuitous sex and violence in present day TV and movies are put there for the box office draw and financial benefit and not for artistic purpose. There is a big difference between banning or altering something like a James Joyce novel, on the one hand, and taking out offensive scenes from a movie that is more a Hollywood product than a work of art, on the other. The entertainment industry has really got us fooled by calling rappers and rock stars "artists" and then using the protections given to art as an argument to try to prevent anyone from censoring offensive lyrics on teen-agers' CD's.

Where I would join you in saying that the artist's rights have been violated is where someone modifies a work's message without the artist's permission, and still represents it to be the artist's work, and especially where that is done for a financial purpose. There, you have an issue of misrepresentation and not just creating a derivative work of art.

There is as well a third point, and that is that for works not yet in the public domain, the artist's permission for any such alteration should be sought.

I don't agree with that, certainly not when the movie is being shown in my home. (In theaters, sure). I don't ask for permission when I press the fast forward button, and no amount of commercial help in doing so translates into an obligation on my part to get permission from the artist.

Dear Zippy,

As I have phrased my objection in terms of public dispersal and made that clear, I didn't think I needed to restate the point in my rejoinder.

In practice, we are in agreement. While I don't bleep things out for Samuel, if there is a mildly objectionable word, I find a way to divert attention from it.

Permission referred specifically to what CleanFlicks proposes to do, and what anyone altering a work to be generally distributed would be doing. If you wish to expurgate the work of a living artist, that artist should be consulted as to how much and where.



As I have phrased my objection in terms of public dispersal and made that clear...

I think we still disagree that getting commercial help in order to do the editing efficiently for in-home viewing constitutes public use. There isn't a crucial moral difference between me doing something myself and me paying someone else to do it more efficiently, as far as I can tell. If it is OK morally for me to edit the movie myself for viewing in my home, then it is OK morally for me to pay someone else to do it.

Dear Zippy,

Well, I guess that's where we part company. As to its morality, I remain dubious. As to its unethicality, I am fairly certain, and as to its illegality, I'm absolutely certain. And I find that fortunate for the creative arts.

Guess you'll have to take up your theoretical battle with them, 'cause I'm bowing out.



I am fairly certain, and as to its illegality, I'm absolutely certain.

Well, I would have to go read the case to know what it really means legally. In my limited experience with the legalities of IP the cases often don't mean what they are portrayed to mean in oversimplified media accounts.

But yes, Steven, I guess we simply disagree about it as a moral issue. Pax.

Dear Steven,
A moral caution, imho. Going back to your earlier example, and all the other arguments pro and con aside, editing an adult piece (such as Chocolat) for a child to view is not a good idea. Even though the child knows it's edited, he doesn't know to what extent it has been edited. Later, when conversing with his peers, his glowing description doesn't match the public version, which creates a false notion of desire to his friends. Beware!

Dear Joachim,

Thank you so much. You do a wonderful job of clearly restating what I was trying so hard to get at. I agree entirely.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on July 18, 2006 7:35 PM.

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