27 July 2010

What To Make Of The Digital Copy Compromise

Whether the record labels like it or not, consumers have become accustomed to importing ("ripping" to you fogies out there) their CD's for use in their portable digital libraries.  The MPAA, however, has done a much better job at preventing consumers from being able to do the same with video content.  I'm not going to explore the pros and cons of this situation in this blog, but rather focus on the compromise solution that has been in place for a couple of years now: the Digital Copy.

You buy a DVD or Blu-ray that includes a Digital Copy ("DC" hereafter if I get lazy), and while you cannot rip the video content itself, the studios allow you to download a digital copy (hence the term) of the feature content onto your PC.  Often, though not always, DC's (told you I'd get lazy) are stored on a separate disc.  A one-time usable authorization code included with your purchase is needed for the redemption of the DC.  Once completed, you'll have the feature content available on your PC and in most cases, can transfer it to a portable device such as an iPod with video playback.

There are problems, of course.  Firstly, not every DVD or Blu-ray includes a DC, so you as a consumer aren't guaranteed that you'll be able to have your favorite movies accessible in a digital format.  So far, out of my library of well over 700 titles, only ten of them have included DC's.  It's great that I have the 1989 Batman in my digital library, but I sure would like to have Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, too.  Alas, Fox didn't offer a DC with Butch.  And I don't know yet of any TV show releases that have included DC.

Secondly, that one-time usable code has an expiration date.  Some are generous; others not so much.  Disney, from what I've read online, has been honoring DC codes well after their expiration date, whereas Warner Bros....well, Warner gets their own paragraph later.  The bottom line is, if you don't purchase and redeem quickly, you are not guaranteed to be able to redeem the DC download.  This has become increasingly aggravating as DVD's including DC's have shown up in places like Walmart's $5 assortment or at overstock vendors like Big Lots.  Yes, you just found Family Guy: Blue Harvest for a more reasonable $5.00, but that Digital Copy expired three months ago.

There is also the issue of backing up or transferring your downloaded files from one PC to another.  I'm in the obnoxious position of not having a DVD burner on my PC (I know, I know) and a movie file is simply too large to fit on a CD-R.  Ergo, I cannot back up my DC files to disc.  I am entirely at the mercy of whether or not my external hard drive decides to crash or become corrupted--as happened to its predecessor.  As long as I keep the content on my iPod, I can rescue it that way if needed, but of course I'm occupying 14.94 GB of my iPod's storage capacity to keep them there.  That's not counting any other digital video content I've downloaded from iTunes.  Apple doesn't appear to have a solution for those without a DVD burner for archiving their video content, other than to suggest you get one, or an external hard drive.  I'm not sure what Apple's response would be if I inquired, "What happens if that external hard drive becomes corrupted?"  I suspect the artificial intelligence that runs their "genius" department would freeze and begin sputtering, "Does...not...compute...!"

Warner Bros.'s Digital Copy Software
Warner Bros. recently made the decision to take Apple out of the equation altogether and created their own Digital Copy software used for redeeming, accessing and organizing Warner Bros. DC's.  Once installed, it can search your drive for previously redeemed Warner DC's you might have and make them viewable within the new software.  It's not perfect, though; mine found The Dark Knight but doesn't recognize Batman.  The most recent Warner product I bought that included a DC was the Blu-ray Disc release of Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.  To redeem this DC, I have to insert the Blu-ray Disc itself into the computer...which, of course, requires a Blu-ray drive.  Thanks, Warner Bros.  It's not enough I can't back up my DC's because my DVD drive isn't a burner, but now I can't even redeem this one because I don't have a Blu-ray drive on my PC.

From a logistical point of view, however, including the DC on the Blu-ray Disc with the rest of the content makes sense.  After all, once a DC has been redeemed (or expires), the disc it occupies is effectively worthless.  Discs can't be recycled, so dedicating a pile of them to content that times out of usefulness is wasteful.  I've kept my DC discs, but only because I'm wired that way.  I've read of others tossing them out, or even selling them on eBay with the code, and then trying to decide what to do with the empty disc hub left in the package.  I've heard of fans who move the remaining discs and artwork to a new case, and others who put the corresponding soundtrack album in the vacant hub, or the DVD version if they have that for some reason.

Some fans have lamented that the Digital Copy has been offered in lieu of the kinds of interesting bonus materials that made DVD so alluring for cinephiles.  I was tempted to believe this hypothesis until recently, when I noted that even DVD and Blu-ray Discs released without Digital Copies aren't necessarily being supplemented by the kind of behind-the-scenes featurettes we'd come to take for granted.  Studios simply aren't convinced that the average movie-buyer even cares about those things, and they've largely been given the ax as studios--like every other business--try to trim their expenses.  And, really, do we need to see the inspiration for, and creation of, Couples Retreat?  It seems that with most comedies, any insights are likely to be shared in a commentary track, and a spattering of outtakes are sufficient for viewing.

Which reminds me: So far, I know only of one release that includes a digital download of bonus materials and that's Twilight.  The caveat, though, is that that release was exclusive to Target.  It would be nice to see bonus materials offered for download as well.  In fact, I'd actually be more likely to watch bonus features on my iPod here and there than I am to sit down and watch them on my Blu-ray player.  Unless I'm going to watch most (or all) of the bonus features from a disc at once, it just seems like a lot of trouble to load a disc just to watch a brief featurette or two.  Whereas, on my iPod, I just have to scroll to what I want to watch and go with it.  Of course, now that iTunes has rolled out their iTunes Extras version of digital movies that include bonus material, it may be that Apple has discouraged studios from offering that content with the DC of the feature itself.

So you might be surprised after reading all this to learn that I'm a fan of Digital Copy.  I know it's possible to rip video content, but I'm really not that interested in finding the necessary software and going through the process of converting formats, etc.  DC is a relatively quick and easy way of expanding my viewing options for my library.  I own a Blu-ray player and it's connected to an HDTV via HDMI cable; why would I want to watch something anywhere else?  It's simple: I'm not always there with my home system.

Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder
It's not often that I like to watch movies or TV while traveling; it's just not my thing.  But this year, my wife and I had to spend almost two weeks visiting my in-laws to take care of some stuff.  My Crohn's was particularly obnoxious most of the time we were there, and one night I pulled out my iPod and decided I was in the mood to re-watch Star Trek.  I couldn't help but recall that scene in Tropic Thunder where Ben Stiller, lost in the Vietnamese forest, sits hunkered over his iPod, watching the classic original series episode, "Arena."

Is a 3" screen ideal?  Of course not.  But it's serviceable, and in any event I wasn't in ideal circumstances anyway.  The entire point of a portable digital player is to have access to one's digital library, and to be able to enjoy content away from home.  My iPod let me do that, and for two hours I was able to escape to the 23rd Century.  And unlike watching the Blu-ray at home, when I had to run to the bathroom, I just took the iPod with me and kept watching.

Disney has even gone a step further; once I redeemed the Magic Rewards Code for Up, it was available for me to stream through my Disney Movie Rewards account page!  So long as I have Internet access with sufficient bandwidth, I can access that film anywhere I go.  I'm still keeping the DC on my iPod, but it's nice to have the option.

What I would like to see from studios is this: Expand the Digital Copy to all releases, except budget releases (like those "4 Movie Favorites" combos).  Set it up so that instead of wasting discs to house the DC, we can instead simply enter a code to authorize the download.  It shouldn't be too hard to do that.  I realize it'll take more time to download than to transfer from disc, and I'm perfectly willing to make that trade.  It's a one-time thing, after all.

Also, Warner Bros. (and any studio considering following their example) needs to get back into bed with Apple.  I don't have a laptop I can take with me.  If I was going to stay where my PC is, I'd just watch the Blu-ray of Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.  You've deprived me of any meaningful reason to download the DC...which, of course, I can't do anyway because I don't have a Blu-ray drive in my PC.  Now that the current model of the Apple TV has an HDMI jack, I've got that at the top of my wish list.  It would be nice if the Blu-rays I bought in the future included Digital Copies I could put on it.

One last thing.  I should note that Warner Bros. really did come through with Watchmen.  The Director's Cut Blu-ray included a Digital Copy of the theatrical cut, but they offered to send me a disc with a Digital Copy of the Director's Cut if I wanted at no additional charge.  I thought that was pretty generous of them.

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