UltraViolet: DRM by any other name still stinks

First major outing of Hollywood's UltraViolet digital streaming effort shows the scheme for what it really is: DRM all over again, and a way to make you pay for content over and over, too.

Molly Wood Former Executive Editor
Molly Wood was an executive editor at CNET, author of the Molly Rants blog, and host of the tech show, Always On. When she's not enraging fanboys of all stripes, she can be found offering tech opinions on CBS and elsewhere, and offering opinions on everything else to anyone who will listen.
Molly Wood
5 min read
The promise of UltraViolet ... DRM with a new, pretty face.
The promise of UltraViolet ... DRM with a new, pretty face.

Wal-Mart this week ushered in a high-profile outing of Hollywood's UltraViolet scheme for digital streaming of movies and TV. And it's the same old song it ever was: complicated, restrictive DRM with a big side helping of "pay me again."

In theory, UltraViolet gives you an easier--or at least, legal--way to digitally stream your movies to multiple devices. The UV standard, developed by the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, offers dizzying promises of an easy-to-access digital library, "total freedom" to view your UV-enabled movies on any device, and future-proof DVD buying where every disc includes cloud backup.

Microsoft PlaysForSure: hey, I think we've seen this promise before...
Hey, I think we've seen this promise before ...

The reality has already been significantly less than promised, and it's no surprise. Those of us who remember FairPlay, Microsoft PlaysForSure, and all the other music DRM battles of the past 14 years or so (yes, it's been 14 years) spotted UltraViolet's true nature right out of the gate. From the consumer perspective, DRM only ever does one thing: drive people crazy.

Let's start with UltraViolet via Wal-Mart. The plan is that you can bring in old DVDs you own and, for a fee of between $2 and $5 per DVD, you can buy yourself digital streaming rights to those movies.

The streaming happens through Wal-Mart's Vudu service, which is available on only about 300 devices--and zero Android devices. It's available on iPad, but if you stood in line for a new iPad with an amazing Retina Display, prepare for disappointment. Vudu on iPad is not in high-def.

You'll need to sign up for a free Vudu account for access, and you might end up needing to buy a new Blu-ray player, one of a handful of connected TVs that support the Vudu app, a Microsoft Xbox 360, or a PlayStation 3 to stream the content to your TV. Oh, and if the Vudu catalog doesn't have a license to the movie, you might be out of luck, in which case you'd have to go find and stream your new digital copy of your DVD from a separate UltraViolet library, which requires a second sign-up process. Oh, and TV shows are excluded.

Oh, and Wal-Mart's plan does not include Disney. So, if you bring in copies of, say, "Cars" or "Toy Story," you won't be able to take advantage of the digital conversion. But I'm sure no one will get confused or angry when they bring in DVDs like Wal-Mart said to do and Wal-Mart says those DVDs aren't included in the deal, right? Right. (But that's OK, you can just re-purchase "Cars" or "Toy Story" on iTunes for the low, low price of just $14.99!)

Offer excludes "Cars" and all other Disney movies.
Offer excludes "Cars" and all other Disney movies. Additional charges may apply. Screenshot by Molly Wood/CNET

But wait, you're saying. That's not what UltraViolet does! UltraViolet gives me total freedom, access to my digital library everywhere, and the ability to watch on every device!

Well, see, but no. Let's look at the UltraViolet fine print. Retailers can determine the terms of the UltraViolet implementation. Wal-Mart gets to decide what apps and what devices support the streaming. Best Buy could also decide. Amazon could make up its own terms whenever it starts selling UltraViolet movies in some form, as was previewed at CES this year.

OK, OK, you're saying. So, the UltraViolet consortium gave retailers a little rope, and Wal-Mart abused it. But the promise of UltraViolet is still there, right? Look at that fine print again.

Note that digital access is limited to one year. The streaming benefits attached to a new DVD are simply "no-extra-charge" streaming with an expiration date. "Fees" may be incurred if you attempt to stream content after that first year. "Fees" may also arise if retailers and streaming services choose to require them. "Service fees" could apply if you want to download more than three of your UltraViolet files to various devices, and downloaded files can only be played on, at least right now, 12 compatible apps and devices. Pay me again, folks. Pay me again.

Back to Wal-Mart and Vudu for a second. Because Disney is not on board, Apple is obviously not on board, so your UltraViolet movie copies can't be backed up to iCloud, where you might be storing lots of other media. In fact, Disney is turning its own digital movie locker (and failed UltraViolet competitor), KeyChest, into a place to store and access all your Disney media. Not that this is a mess or anything.

Similarly, no Amazon digital movie purchases support UltraViolet (or iCloud, for that matter), so there's every chance you could end up with a minimum of two, if not more, cloud libraries for movies. Three, once KeyChest launches. Maybe more!

Oh, and UltraViolet is region-coded. OK, OK, now I'm just piling on.

Image: The UltraViolet fine print will make your head spin (and your eyes bleed!)
The UltraViolet fine print will make your head spin (and your eyes bleed!). Screenshot by Molly Wood/CNET

What really sends me into a rage, though, is just the unbelievable, consumer-unfriendly, blatant hypocrisy in the way the studios continue to approach digital distribution.

It's illegal to rip a DVD at home for your own personal use, thanks to the DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions, but it's fine for Wal-Mart to deliver you a digital copy of said DVD as long as you're willing to pay a fee for it. It's illegal for Kaleidescape to offer home movie servers that do almost exactly what Wal-Mart and UltraViolet now purport to offer, despite the fact that Kaleidescape offers purely private home network viewing. But that's not acceptable because you're not paying again for the right to enjoy your content as you please.

It is appalling to me to hear John Aden, executive vice president for general merchandising for Wal-Mart, say that this move is about helping consumers enjoy their own DVDs into the Digital Age. "We've all recognized that consumers have sunk lots and lots of money into these DVD libraries," he said.

Really? But clearly not enough money, right? Or Hollywood wouldn't be trying so hard to get them to replace those libraries with new! better! Blu-ray! discs!, or trying to charge them a fee to access digital copies of content they already bought that they should have a fair use right to rip for free at home.

Many out there will tell me I've lost the fight against DRM, at least when it comes to movies and TV. The Hollywood lobby has done a remarkable job of shutting down progress, it's true. Studios have blocked disruptors like Netflix and Hulu at every turn. The industry has continued to chip away at consumer rights and fair use with a series of ever-more-hysterical laws and proposed laws (hello, SOPA!).

See, Hollywood attributes the lost decade of music profits solely to piracy and digital intrusion--ignoring the fact that the music industry, in resisting digital distribution for nearly that entire decade, literally kept people from being able to buy music in the digital formats they craved. Now that people can buy digital music without interference, rootkits, DRM, and other headaches, they are.

This cycle of disruption is no different, and all the arguments for fair use and against DRM remain the same. We want digital movies. We want digital backups with no hassle. We want to buy content once and watch it anywhere. And in time, we will have it. And we'll pay for it--just give us a product worth paying for!

In the meantime, I absolutely will not accept that UltraViolet is anything but half-baked DRM, and I certainly will not call it progress, a "feature," or a "benefit for consumers." Put bluntly, Hollywood, don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining.