Does Blockbuster edit its movies?

Also: Is it really so bad that Netflix won't let you take your ratings with you?

Published August 29, 2007 8:50PM (EDT)

Let's tackle this first: Blockbuster does not "edit" movies it rents out in its stores or on its online service, contrary to what many readers say in response to my piece praising Blockbuster's DVD-by-mail service. Doing so would be illegal, of course -- copyright law prohibits Blockbuster from doing anything to the movies without authorization from studios.

OK, well then does Blockbuster ask the studios for watered-down versions of films? The Internet abounds with stories about this, but Tami Cannizzaro, a spokeswoman for Blockbuster, says it's simply not true. "We have heard that for years," she told me this afternoon. "We don't get special versions nor do we ask the studios to make special versions. If we get a movie, it's the studio version." If any of you believe you can prove Cannizzaro wrong, please e-mail me.

It is true that Blockbuster does not carry movies that the Motion Picture Association of America has rated NC-17; this is a long-standing Blockbuster policy, Cannizzaro says. Blockbuster does carry some unrated films, but only those that the company has determined would not have received an NC-17 rating had the MPAA rated them. Thus even though they weren't rated, you won't find John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus," Michael Winterbottom's "9 Songs," nor, of course, Kirby Dick's "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" at Blockbuster.

Netflix, meanwhile, does carry both NC-17 and unrated movies. If this is important to you -- it is to me -- choose Netflix.

A number of readers took issue with my demand that Netflix make subscribers' information portable. I wrote that I've spent hours entering ratings and compiling a queue at Netflix, and I expect to be able to move that data easily -- that is, electronically -- to Blockbuster, my home computer, or anywhere else I please. After all, it's my data.

Several readers said this position is ludicrous. Here's how Harvey put it: "Since when has any service online ever let you do something like that? Can you take your ratings from Amazon and load them up on the Barnes and Noble site? No frigging way! Why would competing sites want to create this sort of interoperability between them? In what universe is Farhad Manjoo living?"

Well, Harvey, I'm living in a universe in which Flickr, the popular photo service, has decided to allow its users to easily move pictures to Flickr's direct competitors because, in the words of Flickr founder Stewart Butterfield, the policy fosters "user freedom." Would anyone quibble with this? The photos you put up at Flickr are obviously your photos; Flickr says so in its user agreement. So clearly you should be able to move them to another service if you want to, right?

Or say you've been writing a blog at Six Apart's subscription blog service TypePad, but now you decide you want to move it over to competitor Wordpress. Would it be OK for TypePad to refuse? Hey, they might say, why should we make it easy for you to take your years' worth of blog posts if you're going to leave our service anyway? You wouldn't stand for this, would you? And, consequently, TypePad provides an export function. Any work you put in TypePad isn't stuck there forever.

Why should Netflix be any different? Movie ratings are personal data. Netflix is profiting from them; the company uses my hundreds of ratings to help other people choose movies. I don't mind that they do. But if they want me to keep entering ratings, why is it too much to ask that they don't hold the ratings exclusively forever?

Finally, some of you seem to resent Blockbuster more for its past than its present; it's charged you so many late fees and subjected you to such awful in-store service you'd never consider trying it now. I hear that; it's a free market, take your dollars wherever your heart feels at home.

What I don't get is the suggestion in many letters that Blockbuster should never have entered the market in the first place. Whether you use it or not, I can't see how Blockbuster's move isn't unquestionably good for everyone. Would Netflix have lowered its price and moved so quickly to streamed movies had it not faced competition from Blockbuster? Maybe. But I'm sure the rivalry is keeping the people at Netflix quicker on their toes, and that's a good thing.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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