Can UltraViolet stop piracy and save the digital marketplace?
An announcement has been made that marks a big change in the marketplace of film and television shows, UltraViolet is the name, and a universal digital rights management (DRM) system is the idea.
Actually it's more of an idea, it's a system that's about to start a beta trial this year and it's a system that has a huge amount of the big studios already on board and it boasts an impressive list of technology partners and download services.
In simple terms UltraViolet is a system that will store online in a free and secure account, the licence keys for the films and television shows you purchase. Once you purchase a film or television show on any UltraViolet enabled media the licence key is added to your account. Then, if you then want to watch the film on another system and/or media, that system can access your account and verify if you already own the rights, allowing you to access it and watch it again.
Doesn't that sound like a piracy killer? A fairer and more consumer focused solution to the ownership of purchased content? You might initially be dismissive of it, but wait till you see the names signed up to the idea already and the plans for the system, this could be a big shift for the industry and a huge bonus for consumers.
What's surprising is that there's already a beta planned for this year, that would suggest that the whole concept is quite far ahead, but the biggest surprise are the amount of names signed up to the project and what that means in terms of distribution, particularly digitally and on DVD and Blu-ray.
Looking at the list you could well believe that this could actually work, and for once it seems to be benefiting both consumer and studio.
First, let's go back to what the system actually is, let's look at what the official site has to tell us about the UltraViolet system:
UltraViolet is designed to let consumers enjoy movies and TV shows without being locked into one specific format.
For digital downloads, UltraViolet movies and TV shows are intended to be offered by multiple online stores and services – so no matter where they’re purchased, they will play on any UltraViolet devices.
For DVDs and Blu-ray discs, UltraViolet is designed to let consumers start with a physical media purchase, then unlock the full UltraViolet digital experience by adding the title to their UltraViolet Account.
Either way, UltraViolet is designed so it won't just provide a single computer file or disc. Buying an UltraViolet title will mean a consumer can make multiple copies to their family’s registered UltraViolet devices. And we’ve also designed UltraViolet so service providers can offer consumers the ability to stream their UltraViolet titles to a variety of cable and Internet-enabled applications and devices.
The point is, UltraViolet means it’s the consumer’s choice: what to buy, who to buy it from, and how and when to watch it.
The site is rather good because it doesn't delve into technology too much and it's continually focused on the consumer's point of view, something that I think the whole idea appears to be, and that's good news.
Before now it's fair to say that the studios have been stuck in the past, they've been trying to protect their old business model and even going to the ludicrous lengths of taking individual people to court for downloading films and television shows illegally. Anything instead of trying to stem the flow of pirated content (the vast majority of which does not come from camcorders in cinemas) or restricting more and more the rights of the owners of content to ensure that they can't distribute it beyond one device or a couple of copies.
So this seems like a breath of fresh air. It suggests that the studios, and the list of technology and distribution partners behind them, have stopped backtracking and are looking for a real solution that protects their product and the consumer’s rights as the owner of their purchase while embracing the digital medium.
The ownership issue is something that UltraViolet accepts:
”Buy a device from Company A and you might find it can’t play movies from Company B. Different usage rules might even apply to exactly the same title purchased from different companies.
UltraViolet™ aims to solve this problem. Once fully deployed, when consumers register UltraViolet devices, they can be confident that their UltraViolet content purchased from any UltraViolet retailer will be available to them.”
Notice that they say devices and that the consumer will be confident that their content will play on their device, and they have a broad idea of what the devices will be:
”UltraViolet is designed for UltraViolet-enabled movies and TV shows to be available in traditional physical stores, online movie stores, and on the growing number of web-based services that let consumers download content through game consoles, smart phones, Internet-connected TVs and Blu-ray players … as well the new devices being invented every day.”
The devices part is interesting because when you look at the list of companies involved you begin to get an idea of the scope and breadth of the system. They have DivX, HP, IBM, Huawei, Intel, LG, Microsoft, Nokia, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Toshiba, and Sony on-board.
Looking at that list you're already thinking of a broad range of devices, but most importantly they have three areas covered, the PC, the PlayStation and the XBox. Before we even think of who isn't in that list, think of who is.
Also remember that if we're talking about the digital download side of this then all we need is a web browser and a media player that has some form of DRM checking installed, it would seem that the online system of UltraViolet would handle the rest.
From what I can gather, UltraViolet won't be supplying anything other than the licence storage system, the API's to access and use it, and the way to build the digital rights management (DRM) into the chosen medium of the company creating the media, if that is any different to the way that existing DRM checks are carried out such as those within Windows Media Player.
There's a broad overview of how the system will work on the official site:
”A few simple clicks will link a retail account to the UltraViolet Account. Then consumers simply shop as usual…and when they make purchases, a right is automatically added to their UltraViolet Account...”
It sounds great, sounds easy, and it sounds consumer focused. Surely this kind of leap in thinking can't have happened overnight? Surely there aren't that many studios who make and own the content who are keen to use this system?
I'm sure that some of you are thinking that, I know I was initially, so here's the list as of today of the companies and organisations that are signed up to UltraViolet:
”Adobe, Alcatel-Lucent, Ascent Media, Best Buy, Blueprint, BT, CableLabs, Catch Media, CinemaNow, Cineplex Entertainment, Cisco, Comcast, Cox Communications, CSG Systems, Deluxe, DivX, Dolby, DTS, ExtendMedia, Fox Entertainment, Hewlett-Packard, Huawei Technologies, IBM, Intel, Irdeto, LG Electronics, Liberty Global, Lionsgate, LOVEFiLM, Marvell Semiconductor, Microsoft, MOD Systems, Motorola, Nagravision, NBC Universal, NDS Group, Netflix, Neustar, Nokia, Panasonic, Paramount Pictures, Philips, RIAA, Red Bee Media, Rovi, Saffron Digital, Samsung, Secure Path, Sonic Solutions, Sony, Switch Communications, Tesco, Thomson, Toshiba, Verimatrix, VeriSign, Warner Brothers, Widevine Technologies, Zoran”
Studio wise, forgetting for the moment about the sales and technology ends, UltraViolet has Fox, Lionsgate, NBC, Paramount, Sony and Warner. Already that's an impressive list of studios but it is missing a couple such as DreamWorks and Disney.
Disney are apparently trying to create their own version of this system just for their own content, and I guess that's fine, and it won't be a great hardship for consumers to sign up to two systems if they have content from Disney and the other, larger UltraViolet group. After all, sign up for an account, assign your devices, and the rest is left to the system to manage it would seem.
That's far from the massive split and huge problems that the doom-sayers I've been reading on-line have been claiming. Let's face it people sign up to multiple websites every day, signing up to one for Disney films and another for non-Disney isn't a huge deal, it's two initial sign-ups and registration of devices on both, even if turned out to be three, it's not a big deal.
Looking on-line there's further negativity about the fact that big retailers such as Amazon aren't on the system, well looking at Amazon you have to realise whose products they are distributing, those of the studios listed above. More than that the video on demand service in the US runs on their Unbox player which is a Microsoft Windows machine running Media Player, Sony BRAVIA internet enabled TV's, and other devices owned by companies on that list. In the UK their rental services is on that list, LoveFiLM. So is Amazon really going to hold out from the service? I don't think so.
Another big sticking point in on-line discussions has been Apple, and while this has almost always ended up with an argument around the cult of Apple, the initial fact is still relevant. Apple aren't on that list.
Now that doesn't mean they won't be, but they aren't yet. Like Amazon though they are distributing other people's content, and those studios could put a lot of pressure on a distribution company, and that would be a good thing anyway as Apple's iTunes system is as closed and DRM laden as most, in fact I stay well clear of it and buy my MP3's elsewhere.
Let's face it if any of these distributors said no, the studios in UltraViolet could just threaten to pull their content and let them sell Disney films only, or if they do create their own version of UltraViolet perhaps not even their films.
Sure it might mean that the system wouldn't stretch to the iPhone, iTouch and iPad, but covering DVD's, Blu-rays, downloads from most but iTunes, the PC, XBox and PlayStation, as well as many other Portable devices and smart phones is surely going to hold a bit of sway with the consumer.
I still think the balance is in favour of the UltraViolet system.
There's something else that tips the balance towards this, and it's another huge win for the consumer that addresses one of the major concerns about any digital media, portability. Again, from the official site it tells us:
“UltraViolet is designed with families in mind. Multiple UltraViolet devices can share a single UltraViolet Account, which means that Bobby’s smart phone, Sally’s laptop, Jimmy’s game console and Mom & Dad’s TV can all access the same UltraViolet content. No need to fight over the living room entertainment center anymore! (Of course, parental control options will be available.)
And by the way, that includes families when they’re apart. Whether away at college in another city or just sleeping over at a friend’s house, with access to the UltraViolet Account, it will be as if everyone is still under one roof.”
A little bit more information on how that is done is also available:
”...[consumers] set up members of their families to have access to titles…and register multiple UltraViolet devices so they can access the family’s library...individuals’ own retail shopping accounts will all be linked to the family’s shared UltraViolet Account.”
The system actually does sound fantastic. It now has the studios thinking about the consumers requirements for a purchase, that they want to own the film or television show and see it across all their devices in, and out of, the home. They don't want to be tied down to playing a digital download on one device and never being able to watch it elsewhere, or only being allowed to three times only. After all, that's not purchasing and owning, that's leasing.
While there might be concerns about one or two studios not being signed up, or a technology or distribution partner, just look at where Blu-ray came from and how quickly that built up, and that wasn't geared to the consumer as well as this system is. This is what people want from their media, it's certainly what I want.
With UltraViolet I could buy a new Blu-ray and watch it at home, watch it again on the train on my smart phone, watch it at my Dad's house hundreds of miles away while my wife watches it at home at the same time. More than this, if I have purchased films and television shows on one download company and move my custom to another who uses UltraViolet, I'll be able to access all the films I'd purchased with the previous company on my new account.
Isn't that what you want from your purchased media? The right to watch it wherever and whenever you want? Could this system really work, and do you think it will work for you?