Digital movie service Ultraviolet has announced it’s closing down at the end of July. Ultraviolet puts bundled digital copies of movies in a number of major studios’ DVDs and Blu-rays, attempting to fight piracy and promote the sale of physical discs by giving you the digital version for free when you buy the disc. (Such bundled copies caused a controversy recently when Redbox opted to unbundle them, though the Disney copies in question were distributed through its own service, Movies Anywhere—Disney didn’t participate in Ultraviolet.)
You would think that this would be another great opportunity to preach against the dangers of DRM, and how putting your faith in a DRM-protected commercial service would lead to the loss of everything you bought from it when the service inevitably shuts down. Only…that’s not actually true in this case. If you’ve built up an Ultraviolet library, it will still be possible to keep most, if not all, of your titles—because the digital movie market seems work fundamentally differently from the ones for ebooks or digital music.
You can rescue your digital movies, as it turns out, by linking your Ultraviolet account to one of five digital retailers Ultraviolet partners with: Fandango Now, Kaleidoscope, Paramount, Verizon FiOS, or Vudu. Indeed, you can link to all of them at once, and they’ll all be happy to let you watch all your Ultraviolet movies through them. Furthermore, you can link those retailers to other services, like Disney’s Movies Anywhere, and link those to services like iTunes and Google Play, propagating your library across each link. I have all my own Ultraviolet titles available to me via Google Play Movies, and I’m actually not entirely sure exactly how they got there—you can’t directly link Ultraviolet to Google Play.
It seems that, under the terms by which the movie studios license their movies to these retailers, if you own the digital copy of their movie from one of them, you are permitted to own it from any or all of them simply by linking the accounts. This is gratifying, yet at the same time deeply weird. Imagine that if you bought an ebook from Amazon, you were also granted that ebook for Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and every other commercial ebook library. Imagine if you bought an MP3 from iTunes, you also got that song from Amazon, Google, and whatever other music retailers exist. That’s unlikely ever to happen, for ebooks or music—but it’s exactly the way these digital movie services work.
When you think about it a little, the reasons for that are fairly obvious. Movie studios don’t have any interest in platform lock-in, in part because so much of what they do is still geared around showing movies in theaters or on physical discs—things where there simply aren’t competing platforms. (HD-DVD tried to compete with Blu-ray for a while, but tanked after studios decided to throw their support behind Blu-ray. And let’s not even get into the disaster that was DIVX.) Indeed, they may not even see these digital movie stores as a means of revenue in and of themselves, so much as a way to push the physical movie discs by bundling free digital copies. It’s in their best interest to make those digital copies as useful as possible, so they make the physical discs more worth getting.
It may also be that these stores always thought of themselves as software stores from the outset—digital movie sales weren’t created until other digital markets were going strong, and they were never allowed to think of themselves as buying and reselling virtual versions of physical things the way ebook stores were; they knew they were agents from the very beginning. Perhaps this made the competition between stores less fierce, because they were all offering the same digital goods.
That might just be why Ultraviolet is going away in the first place—it may not be making money itself, and isn’t really even needed anymore; the studios can offer digital movies for redemption directly through those other services. I was able to redeem my most recent Ultraviolet-included purchase, Spectre, directly to Google Play Movies without passing it through Ultraviolet first. So, it’s doubtful that Ultraviolet closing down will mean the end of digital movie pack-ins.
This cross-service sharing takes much of the sting out of one such site shutting down—you can easily port those movies across to other free services, just by creating your account and making the link. It effectively helps to make that aspect of the DRM invisible, by not restricting your ownership of the content to just one place—you can put copies of your eggs in all the baskets. While Ultraviolet hints that you may not be able to keep all your movies that way, I suspect that they’re just being cautious so as to avoid making unconditional guarantees that might turn out to have exceptions.
Even if you do lose some of your titles, those pack-ins aren’t the only way to get digital copies of your movies. With a DRM-cracker like AnyDVD and a disc-ripper like Handbrake, any disc can easily be ripped and uploaded to an online file locker like Google Drive or Dropbox. If you keep your digital video collection there, you can stream it to any device that can access it from wherever you are, or even use a service like Rabb.it to watch it with other people. Of course, that’s technically illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act—but as long as you’re just using the copies yourself, not uploading them to piracy sites, it’s doubtful anyone will even find out.
It’s really weird that it’s the movie industry that is doing the most to make digital media purchases portable. After all, this is the same industry that saddles Blu-ray with the major headache of (ineffectively) fighting piracy by intentionally breaking Blu-ray DRM every so often, and the anti-consumer market segmentation tactic of selling movies encoded to different regions—and, for that matter, the same industry that tried to strangle the VCR in its crib way back when. But whatever the reason they’ve come to their senses here, it’s certainly welcome.
Now if only ebooks and music worked the same way!