Provo—Almost a year after VidAngel got sued by some of the biggest studios in Hollywood, the video-filtering service is back in business.
While the lawsuit, filed by Disney, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers last July, is still ongoing, VidAngel announced Tuesday night that it will now offer filtering to streaming services on Netflix, HBO and Amazon. Somewhat ironically, that lawsuit, which has effectively halted VidAngel’s business for the last 11 months through a court-ordered injunction, is what allowed the company to make this latest step, said VidAngel CEO Neal Harmon.
“We’ve always wanted to make this possible, and we fortunately had the resources to turn all of our efforts to solve this problem we’ve always wanted to solve,” he said.
Subscribers can use VidAngel’s filtering system to remove language, nudity, violence and other content from the movies and TV they watch on streaming services. In the future, Harmon said they hope to expand to iTunes and Hulu, as well.
“To be frank, there’s a lot of opposition to what we’re trying to achieve, but we know there’s a large market out there for us,” he said, noting a recent study that said 40 percent of Americans said they would like to filer content from their media. “That’s a big market, and we’re going to give it to them.”
In the pending lawsuit, which is over VidAngel’s past service filtering DVDs and Blu-Rays, Disney et al has alleged that VidAngel doesn’t have the rights to change or distribute the material. Unlike unaffiliated and bygone services like CleanFlix, VidAngel didn’t change or burn new copies of the movies it offered viewers. When the service started in 2015, VidAngel notified the litigious companies of the service to no response, Harmon said in a statement at the time the suit was filed.
VidAngel will file a motion with the court to ask whether the injunction applies to the new technology, and if not, VidAngel will immediately begin filtering the plaintiffs’ content with the new service, according to a press release. Either way, the service is currently available for the streaming services.
Harmon also said the new service should obviate the plaintiffs’ complaints because it filters content without having to decrypt it, it eliminates VidAngel’s previous buy-sellback model (in which users bought a filtered movie for $20 and returned it for $19) that allowed studios to argue they were losing money they might make from streaming, and it eliminates the concern that VidAngel could make content available before streaming services. The service also ensures users can only watch filtered content from the streaming services they already have subscriptions or other rights to.
The new service works using a crowd-sourced tagging tool that allows viewers throughout the country to tag shows for different kinds of content, as well as using machine-learning algorithms. Users then provide their login information to Netflix, Amazon or HBO accounts through the VidAngel app on iPhone, Android or Netflix, choose their filter settings, and select what they want to watch. The filtered version of that show is sent to the user’s device for viewing.
Because of the change in offered services, the length of time VidAngel had been under the injunction and the surprise nature of the announcement, Harmon said it was tough to anticipate how users would react. They prepared their servers for typical use before the injunction, he said, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
“We’re trying to keep our servers online and working because we knew how much traffic we received before we were enjoined, so we planned for that—we didn’t think we would. But we got three times the traffic we expected. That’s the short-term goal, keeping it online and letting people have their filtering back. There’s been a lot of pent-up demand for this,” he said.
One of the key arguments, inside and out of the courtroom, hinges on the rights of content creators verses the rights of the consumer. Harmon said VidAngel believes those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
“Our position is that directors should have the right to create content how they choose and publish it, so it’s published in the public sphere. As soon as they sell that content to the private user, as soon as they’re paid for it, that family should have the right to see that however they want. It’s common sense that you can use the remote to fast forward, or only watch part of it—that’s their choice,” he said. “Everybody’s rights are balanced.”
VidAngel isn’t alone in its efforts to provide family-friendly content. Sony’s plan to include television-edit movies—that is, versions of movies edited of content to conform to network television or basic cable standards—with the theatrical versions of films bought through services like iTunes, was met with harsh blowback from creators like Seth Rogan and Judd Apatow. On Wednesday, Sony announced it would not offer “clean versions” of movies whose directors disapproved.
Harmon said Sony’s offering is both a reflection of audiences’ increasing demand for more control over their media and proof that the conversation about that demand is becoming more public.
“We’re really cheering Sony on. We’re glad they’re changing the conversation and delivering what people are asking for. The key distinction between Sony and us is with Sony, ultimately the argument the directors can make is they decide the content and where it is possible. With VidAngel, the family pays for the content and then changes the [filtering],” he said.
VidAngel is happy to be back in business, he said, and they’re excited to be able to carry on their mission in a new way. There’s a silver lining in the lawsuit, as well as the challenges up ahead, said Harmon, and the industry as a whole will be better for it in the end.
“Over a million Americans were streaming movies on VidAngel before we got enjoined and this whole saga, for lack of a better word, is changing the conversation. It’s changing the industry,” he said. “It’s changing the way people think about one another’s rights and we think ultimately we’re landing in a better place where people can enjoy this kind of technology.”