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Amazon's Unbox under fire?

PCScreen.jpgAmazon has just released their film download service and it has, quite obviously, been followed by some strong negative comments. One article has been emailed through to me and it carries quite a few negative comments. Now, I am right there standing with everyone else against the restrictions of download services, but this is perhaps the closest we've come to being allowed freedom with our downloads.

Hap pointed me to an article over at Uninnovate.com where they list their issues with the service, and I'll attempt to address them all through the article.

You can't play Unbox movies on your DVD player
You can't let your friends borrow your Unbox movies
You must give Amazon an absurd amount of control over your computer

Those are the main headlines they hit us with, and the last one has a number of sub points:

You must install any software patch Amazon releases
You must agree to let Unbox report what movies you watch
If you try to uninstall Amazon’s Unbox player for any reason, Amazon has the right to automatically delete all of your movies
You have to agree to let Amazon spam your computer with “promotional downloads” that appear unsolicted in your Unbox player
Amazon can discontinue the Unbox service at any time without liability
Amazon can change the terms of the agreement at any time

So it looks pretty damning on the face of it, althought straight away the comments are quick to point out that these issues are more to do with the enforcements from the MPAA than Amazon themselves. Okay, but whoever they are from, let's look at these and see if they really are an issue...

You can't play Unbox movies on your DVD player
This, I fear, is the biggest issue and they are perfectly right in highlighting this. If I want to download a DVD to watch, then I want to watch it on my Home Cinema system, and that means through my DVD player. Even if I download a movie I want to do the same. Until computers have a simple and cheap (even free) system that will allow streaming to your Home Cinema system with fill DVD quality, the DVD player remains the best option, so I want to download my movie, cut it to the DVD and play it there, full screen, full quality and full audio.

You can't let your friends borrow your Unbox movies
Well, technically you can't really let anyone borrow your movies. You can have friends round to watch it, as long as you don't charge them, but by the letter of the law I shouldn't be lending out my DVD's to anyone. Anyway, that's not really a killer is it? Just because you can't lend the movie out to your friends would you not take the service? I hardly ever lend out films, I tend to have people round to watch them, it's much more fun!

You must give Amazon an absurd amount of control over your computer
Okay, so I'm going to look at each of these points made and we'll see if it really is absurd.

You must install any software patch Amazon releases
Microsoft anyone? Okay, you don't have to install them, but you're more or less forced to as programs require the latest patches. Anyway I wouldn't not install them, why would you want to be running an older version of the software? I'd want bugs and security holes fixed. This is really so that if someone hacks through the service Amazon can insure their fix will be distributed to all. However, let's read Amazon's Terms of Use:

The Software automatically checks for upgrades, but the Software will not automatically upgrade without your consent...

However (again), there is a blanket warning that if you do not consent to the upgrade the digital content may no longer be viewed. Isn't that likely if the upgrade is to the licensing, video codec or some similar thing? They also say that they may automatically upgrade the software if they are required to do comply with law, enforce the agreement (because you broke it or could break it) or to protect the rights and content you've downloaded. Again this is incase someone has cracked the software and they need to stop people copying the content.

Is that too much to expect? Isn't it a similar thing with iTunes for example? I can't keep using previous versions of iTunes to download content can I? Same with Windows software such as Media Player, and in fact with a lot of software, what about Flash? If you don't upgrade it doesn't work with new content.

You must agree to let Unbox report what movies you watch
This is nothing new again, Microsoft, iTunes, Sony Connect, etc.

Amazon respects your privacy, and the Software will not access computer files or other information on your computer that are not used by or otherwise related to the Service.

There are lot's of may statements in there as well, e.g.

the Software may provide Amazon with information about the Digital Content from the Service on your Authorized Device, whether it has been deleted and whether it has been viewed.

So the software may pass back to Amazon when you've downloaded or viewed the film and when you've transferred it to your authorised devices. Nothing surprising there, it needs to ensure you only transfer it to certain devices. You're told that up front. Why is this an issue? Just like with Windows Media Player, you could block the traffic using a firewall if you were particularly paranoid.

If you try to uninstall Amazon’s Unbox player for any reason, Amazon has the right to automatically delete all of your movies
This one is quite amusing, and I'm surprised anyone would argue against this.

Removal of Software. If you uninstall or otherwise remove the Software, your ability to view all Digital Content you have downloaded to the Authorized Device will immediately and automatically terminate and we reserve the right to delete all Digital Content from that Authorized Device without notice to you.

Yes, if you delete the player, that is the only player that can play the content in the first place, of course you won't be able to view the films. Then they are saying that they reserve the right to delete the films from your computer. Actually they won't be able to do this since you've uninstalled the software, but they are reserving that right, after all without the player you can't watch them.

An important thing to remember here is that if your local device copy is deleted you still have them stored in your account on the Amazon Unbox service and can download them from there after authorisation.

Purchased Digital Content will generally continue to be available in your Media Library for download to a second of your Authorized Devices (or re-download to the first Authorized Device you designate for the content)

They follow this with a blanket statement covering them if the licensing changes on content or if the item is no longer available.

You have to agree to let Amazon spam your computer with “promotional downloads” that appear unsolicted in your Unbox player
Now I've never seen anywhere on the Internet where I've been forced to watch adverts on a service. Nowhere. (This, for those of you who don't know, is called sarcasm. Actually the opposite is true and everywhere you go on the Internet you are forced to watch trailers, adverts, etc.)

From time to time, Amazon will automatically deliver promotional video content (e.g., movie trailers, celebrity interviews, reviews, etc.) to your Authorized Device. Amazon may automatically delete such promotional video content from your Authorized Device without notice to you.

Yeah, well I don't like adverts and promotional trailers, etc. Except I have to watch them on 99% of Internet sites, on the TV, at the cinema, even now on DVD. I'm not saying that's right, but that's the way it is everywhere else, I don't see why this is so wrong.

Amazon can discontinue the Unbox service at any time without liability
If you've ever signed up to any service before, in real life or on the Internet, you'll find this clause in agreements and contracts. The company that supplies the gas to my house or my credit card company can decide to terminate the agreement for no reason at their whim. That clause is everywhere you look.

Amazon can change the terms of the agreement at any time
As above. This is on my phone agreement, my broadband, bank account, credit cards, etc, etc.

Okay, so looking through the agreement I have to say this is perhaps the most consumer focused service I've seen to date. Sure you're tied to their software, take a look at iTunes, sure they are reserving their rights as per any other agreement, and yes they are keeping track of your usage, surprise but did you know your ISP is keeping records on everything you do? As are credit cards, loyalty cards, bank accounts, etc.

Within the confines of this service I don't see any of this as such a big deal. The only thing I have a problem with is that I can't yet have a service where I download a movie, cut it to DVD, and watch it on my home cinema system. Now that's something to shout about and force change in these services, not these other little issues.

Now you've made it this far, what do you think? Is this service such a bad thing? Are there points that you still object to? What are your issues with download services? Why would you or would you not download films, and what are the reasons for you doing so?



Hey Richard-

I'll chime in with a few comments since I seem to have started this one up.

First and foremost, my main objection to any system like this is restriction to a single platform. My home system consists of a couple of Linux boxes serving the movies I own to my televisions. This service is absolutely useless to me in that respect. If they were giving me a quicktime or mpeg file, great, but that's not what they're doing. They're trying to sell me something without really selling it to me.

With respect to iTunes, I've never noticed my failure to upgrade affecting my ability to use the service. Of course, I'm sure when they introduce new features like video downloads, you might not be able to participate in that part of the site, but it hasn't, in my experience, changed what you can do with content you already own. Amazon is reserving the right to take back what you've bought simply because you refuse to upgrade. It's fine if they change encodings or security on *new content*...just don't break the existing content I already own.

On promotional material, I have to disagree with your attitude on that issue. Our ambivalence to forced advertising is what has led us to some of the current DRM mess we're in. Did you know that the Shrek 2 DVD plays something like 10 minutes of promotional material, some of which scares my son, without allowing you to fast forward, chapter skip, or do pretty much anything on your DVD player? This is just a continuation and extension of that attitude.

If I buy a movie, I want the movie and only the movie. If you want to put ads in it, I think the movie should be free or nearly free (i.e. cost of production and distribution only). DVDs or TV recordings are really the only option right now due to technologies that exist to get around the ads. Of course, the MPAA calls these things *illegal*, but are they really? And if they are, *should* they be?

Even though this isn't really a big issue for me (I have no friends :->), I have to take exception with your statement, "...by the letter of the law I shouldn't be lending out my DVD's to anyone." Are the laws on your side of the pond different than they are here in the U.S.? Last I checked, it was perfectly legal to hand somebody my DVD to let them watch it. Did you drink the MPAA kool aide? :)

All joking aside, I think it's a dangerous line of thought. Instead of a DVD, what if it was a book? The game is that the MPAA and RIAA want to mix and match licensing with ownership to their heart's content. The problem is that if they license us to watch movies, we only have to buy that license once. However, if they sell them to us, they can sell them to us as many times and in as many formats as they want.

As far as this service is concerned, I think it will be dead in the water shortly. And while I hate to say it, I believe Bill Gates has the right view of how media should exist in the home. Microsoft's plans for the XBox 360 are the closest thing to what I would want that's available from mainstream sources.

Maybe Steve Jobs will give us something more palatable tomorrow, though. Sorry for the lengthy post. All in all, I like your article because it encourages discussion on the issues.

So if you keep the player installed you can watch your content. Isn't such a big deal is it? Same as keeping iTunes to play your iTunes content - I have to since I've switched to my Sony and dumped the iPod.

Promotional Material - I totally agree with what you are saying, but that issue is not with Amazon, sure they are continuing the trend but the problem is with the overall market trend to saturate is with advertising and it's there it should be addressed. What about websites with popups and banner ads all over the place? It's a far larger problem than this service.

No, I'm pretty positive that if you read the full copyright notices you'll see that you're not supposed to lend them out. That may be a UK\Europe thing, I'll go dig out the full text and see if I can track that one down for you.

Oh, by the way, haven't you seen my review of "This Film is Not Yet Rated"? I'm certainly not on the MPAA side, and we don't have "kool aide" over here! ;)

I think what we're getting into now is the whole copyright and ownership debate, and I'm not closing it down by a longshot, I'm just suggesting that we remember which discussion is which. Amazon are providing the closest service to what we would like as they can under the stringent MPAA, Studio and US guidelines\laws. So Amazon's service is pretty damn good in that respect.

However the overall idea of purchasing content that you can't really use correctly or truly own, is heavily flawed.

Interestingly what are the copyright laws for a book? If you purchase it are you also allowed to photocopy it, or convert it into digital format? That would be an interesting thing to find out.

I sure hope my posting isn't making it obvious that DRM, copyrights, patents, etc. are hot-button topics for me. Let's talk prescription drug or algorithm patents next. :)

iTunes...I really don't like the DRM features of iTunes (btw I should note that I have always felt that old-style Napster was illegal...so don't put me in that camp), but convenience got the better of me. Most of my music is from my CD library which is transportable. For fairplay encrypted stuff, iTunes will burn to CD. I believe iTunes will also stream music over your network to other devices if they implement the right protocol. If Amazon's player would do that, it might be better.

Promotional...installing a popup blocker isn't illegal. Neither is fast-forwarding a VCR tape. Using a player that ignores the DVD restrictions? Borderline in the U.S. but yet to be tested in court. Not sure what the case will be with Amazon's service. One wonders if it will soon be illegal to take a pit stop while the commercials play on your Bluray disc.

Lending DVDs...actually, I'd say that the MPAA would be more apt to get after you for having friends over to watch your movie than they would be to have you let your friend borrow your DVD. I believe the notices at the beginning of movies deal more with copying and public exhibition than anything else. Now I do agree that I can't take a movie off of my file server and e-mail it (if that were possible) to a buddy to watch (i.e. old-style Napster).

Books...you can't photocopy or convert to digital (unless you argue backup copy purposes), but you can certainly hand off your copy to a friend to let them read it. Nothing wrong with that. I use the book comparison because it tends to put things in perspective as to the absurdity of what the MPAA is doing with movies.

I haven't seen your review of "This Film Is Not Yet Rated", but now I'll go look for it. If you gave it a positive review, I hope Richard Brunton isn't your real name. ;->

I think my issue with these licensing restrictions is that you are required to use a closed, proprietary service that won't allow you to meaningfully archive items that you've paid for. Why would I invest in a system that I can't use outside of one proprietary piece of software? I could spend hundreds of pounds over x years, the software could be discontinued, and then I would lose everything that i've paid for once my OS upgrades don't work with the software. I know that problem is often inevitable (like with Casette tapes), but hardware typically has a much longer staying ability than software (i can still dig out an old tape player, but am i going to keep an XP box in the attic for 40 years so i can still watch Finding Nemo?).

I think this service is getting such a negative reaction because if this is the "pioneer" steps into downloadable films, where in the world is it going to go from here? We should be moving towards services that allow users content, not closed systems that segmentise the market.

Er, that should be "allows users to own content.

Problems! Problems!
I downloaded UNBOX (And I never download anything) I thought I was just downloading a video media managing program. (Like Itunes) Now they have changed my video codec (i believe) and I cannot watch any of the videos I had already on my computer. I do not know how to fix it. I can still hear audio, though. If I uninstall will it reverse this? I did not have system restore on when I downloaded. DUMB ME!


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