Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Still Think Online Piracy Is About Artists' Rights? Guess Again

For years, film and video content providers have been cracking down on internet pirates and private citizens in their efforts to maximize their bottom line. Through the use of lawsuits, criminal charges, congressional lobbying, corporate intimidation, and hostile software acquisitions, they have been methodically eliminating consumer options for backing up DVD's or transferring them from one platform to another.

What parent who has bought dozens of Disney DVD's would not want to make backup copies before they are totally scratched up in the minivan or left behind at their kids' sleep overs? If you shelled out over $250 for the complete Sopranos series, why wouldn't you want to easily (and without extra cost) be able to watch the shows on either your TV, your computer or on your iPod?

Hollywood has long been criticized for their seemingly anti-consumer initiatives, especially when they have not provided consumers with any viable alternative for streaming/sharing content themselves. But last week saw the high-profile unveiling of Hollywood's "UltraViolet" scheme-- available initially at Wal-Mart, it is marketed as an easier way to send movies and content to multiple devices. As always, we can count on CNET to give us the real deal-- and what is their verdict?

It stinks. Hollywood claims that Ultraviolet offers an easy-to-access digital library, "total freedom" to view your UV-enabled movies on any device, and future-proof DVD buying where every disc includes cloud backup.

The reality is less than promised, however. The Wal-Mart plan is that you can bring in your existing DVDs and, for a fee of between $2 and $5 per DVD, you can buy yourself digital streaming rights to those movies (even though you legally already have those rights-- but that's another discussion).  The streaming happens through Wal-Mart's Vudu service, which is available on only about 300 devices-- none of them Android devices.  It's available on iPad, but not in high-def.

You'll need to sign up for a free Vudu account for access, and you might end up needing to buy a new Blu-ray player, one of a handful of connected TVs that support the Vudu app, a Microsoft Xbox 360, or a PlayStation 3 to stream the content to your TV.

And if the Vudu catalog doesn't have a license for your movie, you might be out of luck-- in which case you'll have to go find and stream a digital copy of your DVD from a separate UltraViolet library, which requires a second sign-up process (and possibly more money). Cha-ching!

And by the way-- TV shows are excluded.  Oops!

And one more thing-- Wal-Mart's plan doesn't include Disney.  I mean, come on! What child-rearing family in the U.S. doesn't own at least one Disney flick? But that's OK . . . you can just re-purchase "Cars" or "Toy Story" on iTunes for an extra $14.99! Cha-ching!

But all of that doesn't seem what UltraViolet was promised to be-- right? UltraViolet is supposed to give you total freedom, access to your digital library everywhere, and the ability to watch on every device!

Wrong. The fine print from Hollywood allows retailers to determine the specifics of UltraViolet's implementation. Wal-Mart gets to decide what apps and what devices support the streaming. Best Buy could also decide. Amazon could make up its own terms whenever it starts selling UltraViolet movies.

OK, OK-- so maybe Wal-Mart is abusing the system, but UltraViolet is worth a few extra bucks (per DVD) for convenience, right?

Wrong again. Digital access bought using UltraViolet is limited to one year. The streaming benefits attached to a DVD you've already purchased have a finite expiration date.  Fees may be incurred if you attempt to stream content after that first year.  Fees may also arise if retailers and streaming services choose to require them (for any reason they desire).  Service fees could also apply if you want to download more than three of your UltraViolet files to various devices, and downloaded files can only be played on (at least right now) 12 compatible apps and devices. Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching . . . .

Back to Wal-Mart and Vudu for a second. Because Disney is not on board, Apple is obviously not on board, so your UltraViolet movie copies can't be backed up to iCloud, where you'll be storing other media if you own an Apple device. Still think this is convenient? Disney has also decided to turn its own digital movie locker, KeyChest, into a place to store and access all your Disney media. This is all starting to look like a hot mess, don't ya think?

To make matters worse, digital movies purchased on Amazon won't support UltraViolet (or iCloud, for that matter), so there's every chance you could end up with a minimum of two cloud libraries for movies. Three, once KeyChest launches. Maybe more!

Oh, and UltraViolet is region-coded-- meaning that whatever content your buy and store in the U.S. won't be playable while your vacationing in South America, Europe or Asia.  Can you give me one more big "Cha-ching"?!!

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