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.

Accessing the digital copies was easy. Pop the second disc into your PC, and it comes up with a menu that lets you choose between accessing special features or going to Digital Copy. I selected Digital Copy, and waited a few moments while the disc verified the state of my Windows digital rights management software; turned out I needed an update, a situation Microsoft remedied in just a few seconds.

Once my DRM was up-to-date, the disc prompted me for a 16-digit code that's printed on an insert that came with the DVD. Fox's server quickly validated the code; once I was approved, the Digital Copy Manager launched. I selected my movie from column A, chose the destination (hard drive, portable device) from column B, and clicked the 'Start Sync' (odd choice of nomenclature) button. The transfers were fast, taking 2 minutes for the PC version of the film and 2 minutes, 20 seconds to transfer it to a portable device.

The PC version's image quality looked surprisingly good on my 19-inch LCD monitor. The image appeared on a par with movie download-to-buy options (such as Apple's iTunes Music Store).

I didn't have the opportunity to view the portable version. For starters, I learned the hard way that the Digital Copy Manager isn't smart enough to recognize that the Samsung YP-P2 isn't a Windows PlaysForSure device: I ended up copying the portable version of the film directly to the YP-P2. Oops.

For now, the Die Hard digital copy will work only with Windows PlaysForSure devices. This is a notably odd choice, given that even Microsoft has backed off from PlaysForSure, and don't support the standard. Fox's Kaye says that other formats may be supported in the future.

The system is set up to allow only one transfer each of the PC and portable versions. If something goes wrong--for instance, your hard drive fails or you lose your portable device--Kaye says that Fox's customer service will provide a one-time-only disaster-recovery exception for a second copy. Warner has not established any parameters for such scenarios as of yet.

Warner's Harry Potter DVD wasn't yet available for me to try its digital-copy functionality, but from what Wuthrich describes, it's very similar to how Fox's implementation worked. Two small differences: One, the portable version transfers to your PC hard drive first and then moves to your portable unit. Two, Wuthrich says the portable version will work on any device that supports Windows Media digital rights management, including media players and some mobile phones.

Why Digital Copying?

After watching the music industry implode due to rampant illegal sharing of digital music, both Fox and Warner realized that they needed to listen to consumers--or the movie industry could find itself going down the same treacherous path.

The upside? The studios are actually making it easy for consumers to transfer digital copies of movies. These first two discs are testing the waters to see how consumers respond; executives at both studios, however, indicate that plans are under way to expand the programs, assuming that the initial efforts are successful.

"Our vision is that along with the DVD disc, this gives the consumer added convenience," says Fox's Kaye. "We have full confidence that it will be very appealing [to consumers] and we'll be doing it again and again."

Wuthrich echoes those sentiments, noting that Warner's own research shows that consumers want a copy of their movies for use on a PC. "These digital options are to provide choice. We're doing it because it adds value to the DVD itself," says Wuthrich. "It's a legitimate way for people who'd like a digital copy of the film to get it."

Like Kaye, Wuthrich is looking ahead to expanding the digital copying program. "This is the first step of many. We intend to add this capability to more products going forward," he promises. "Consumers are interested in digital files; we need to find ways for them to enjoy those files in a legitimate manner."

Unfortunately, the efforts still fall short of offering the freedom that most consumers want once they've purchased content. In being limited to just one PC transfer and one portable transfer, consumers might still feel boxed in.

"None of these restrictions actually do anything to stop piracy," notes Electronic Frontier Foundation senior staff attorney Fred von Lohmann. "They only hurt consumers who are trying to do the right thing. These efforts to lock you in to one computer or one PlaysForSure device won't stop people from downloading the movie; they will only restrict people who've ponied up money for the DVD."

In an era when software packages like HandBrake and DVD Shrink make breaking the copy protection on DVDs reasonably easy, and when sites like The Pirates Bay facilitate finding BitTorrent versions of films, it's easy to dismiss these early studio efforts as inconsequential and irrelevant.

Not so fast: Industry experts agree it's a good thing that the studios are at least acknowledging what consumers want to do.

"It's exciting that the content community is listening to consumers and their desire to have control of their content," says Megan Pollock, spokesperson for the Consumer Electronics Association. "Consumers want to be able to do what they want with content they've legally and lawfully acquired."

By taking these steps, adds Ross Crupnick, an analyst at NPD: Entertainment, the studios are offering consumers a legal way to obtain a digital copy. "You have the potential to take a little bite out of the need for them to use unauthorized means to digitize video."

For this concept of studio-provided digital copies to be successful, Hollywood will have to concede that flexibility is king. One-time transfer rights to one device won't cut it: The DRM scheme--assuming that DRM persists at all (the music industry, for its part, is starting to embrace DRM-free business models)--must account for the fact that consumers might have multiple devices they'd like their content stored on simultaneously, or that they might want to move the content from one device to another. Hollywood will also have to broaden access to these files to support devices beyond the Windows DRM world.

There's no question that Live Free or Die Hard and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix represent a major shift. Let's hope these initiatives represent the start of a trend.

"This is certainly a step in the right direction. We just hope that the studios continue down this road: They're making moving content easier," says CEA's Pollock. "It will be good for consumers if the movie and music industries listen to and understand consumers' demands--and if they understand that we're in a digital and portable world and that's how consumers want to enjoy their content."

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