Hollywood Launches Legal Digital Copying of DVD Movies

You've already bought the DVD to enjoy on your big-screen TV at home. But you also want to watch the flick on your portable media player or on your laptop without using the disc.

Until now, you had two options: Rebuy the movie digitally (an expensive, often limited proposition), or circumvent the copy protection on the disc and make your own digital copy of the movie. Two film studios are taking baby steps toward offering a third, legal alternative, permitting you to copy the movie to your device from the DVD itself.

Twentieth Century Fox is first out of the gate. With the two-disc Live Free or Die Hard Collector's Edition DVD, out today, Fox debuts Fox Digital Copy, the studio's fledgling infrastructure for allowing consumers to transfer digital copies of a movie from the disc to a PC and to a portable device.

Warner Brothers follows suit on December 11, with the DVD release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Similarities Between the Two Digital Versions

The Fox and Warner initiatives share several similarities. Both include the digital-copy feature at no extra charge on the special-edition DVDs, which run at about a $5 premium over the standard editions. Both studios are using Windows Media DRM and require Windows Media Player 10 or above. Both offer two digital versions of the films, one for PC and one for a portable device.

Fox says that its PC version of the Die Hard sequel is encoded at 1.6 megabits per second (taking up about 1.5GB of space), while the portable version runs at 768 kilobits per second (about 1GB of space). Warner says that its PC version of the latest Harry Potter movie averages about 1 mbps, while the portable version averages about 700 kbps.

The two studios have chosen a similar strategy for their initial digital-copy transfers, placing the digital versions on the second disc of the two-disc special-edition DVDs. (An interesting side note: Warner says that industrywide only about 20 to 25 percent of buyers opt for the more expensive special editions of DVDs, a point that underscores that the studios are slowly easing into this brave new digital world.) The studios also cite the same reasoning for including the digital movies on the disc: Doing so offers a more immediate experience as compared with a download via the Internet.

Warner experimented with Internet downloads this past summer, on the epic battle movie 300. DVDs of 300 sold in Target and Wal-Mart, for example, came with a download code for accessing the film via the Internet. For Harry Potter, though, Jim Wuthrich, senior vice president of electronic sell-through for Warner Brothers, says that the studio chose to put the movie on the disc instead.

"It's because of the superior consumer experience; you don't have to wait for the bits to be downloaded," he says. "The transfer time is dependent only on how fast your DVD-ROM drive is. It's not tied to your broadband speed."

Danny Kaye, executive vice president of global research and technology strategy at Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, says that the inclusion of digital copies on-disc is a precursor to broadening the digital movie downloads business beyond the niche that it occupies today.

"That's the vision," he says. "We have to start somewhere and we're starting right here."

Hands-On: Live Free or Die Hard--How the Copy Works

I had the chance to test Fox's Live Free or Die Hard copy functions, and I found much to like. But not all was rosy.

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