Ultra Violet: The DRM That Could Save Movies

DRM is the bane of media consumption, restricting consumers from doing what they want with content that they legally purchase. But what if the DRM actually worked while giving you the ability to consume movies you'd paid for on any device you owned? Would that make DRM worth it? It may not be too long before we find out.

DRM is a dirty word to most tech savvy consumers. Designed to use technology to try and prevent piracy, the end result of most forms of DRM is often the complete opposite, driving otherwise honest consumers to commit copyright crimes for the ability to control the how, where, when and why of their viewing experience. It just doesn't make sense that a consumer who spends $40 on a Blu-ray copy of Kick Ass should then have to fork out $25 to be able to watch the film on their smartphone.

But a new approach to DRM by pretty much every major technology company and movie studio (except Apple and Disney, who are obviously happy riding the iTunes gravy train) called Ultra Violet could - if successful - offer users complete control of their media consumption habits with a single purchase, doing away with the need to hit bittorrent sites for a digital copy to supplement their physical media purchase.

Ultra Violet is a cloud based solution to DRM. It works like this: When you purchase a copy of a movie, be it on Blu-ray, DVD or online, at the point of sale your transaction details are uploaded to a server somewhere out there in the internet, which acts as a "digital locker". Once a movie has been activated within your digital locker, you will then have the ability to stream it or download it to pretty much any device on the market (except maybe the iPhone or iPods), all without having to worry about whether or not it will work with your computer or mobile device operating system of choice. According to Danny Kaye, Executive Vice President of Global Research and Technology Strategy at 20th Century Fox, the future will offer even more ways of getting access to your film:

"The kiosk is going to become electronic - there are some already - where other than just dispensing physical products, it'll have files on its own server that I could, say, write to a device that has internal flash or I could use SD cards or USB sticks, and maybe I don't have to do a new transaction because I already have the rights to do that which would store it in the cloud. And now that I have that portable media, I can now go directly to a TV, to a smartphone or back to my PC or plug it into my Blu-ray player... Flexibility to use lots of different things.

This is actually just the near future. There's even a more distant future with near-field communications technologies. Right now, even if I get a really fast SD card that can hold a big file - a really fast SD card still costs a lot of money - but it's not actually fast in the context of things like a big, Blu-ray type file. It still takes time - minutes to many minutes - to write a file with the fastest card today. Well those kind of things will evolve and you've got technologies like TransferJet and near-field technologies... data can be transferred at many many multiples of the speed that we currently write data to a card or USB stick."

This approach deals with many of the problems currently involved with digital copies - like what format the digital version is stored in and whether that format will work on your device. By storing the copy in the cloud and letting users download the version appropriate for their device - or even multiple devices for anyone in the family with your locker's login details - it eradicates the need to head to bittorrent.

It does however create some new problems. Like all cloud-based solutions, there is the question of what happens when something goes wrong at the server end - will you suddenly lose connection with your movie stream? Will your details get lost in the ether? Unlike when something like Gmail goes down, movies aren't an essential part of day to day life, and losing access to your digital entertainment for a few hours isn't necessarily going to hurt your business. But it will still be inconvenient, which is something pirates don't have to worry about.

But perhaps the bigger issue will be the lack of Apple support. Apple and Disney are happy with the status quo, and so aren't a part of the Ultra Violet consortium. That means that despite offering almost universal access to devices, the most popular devices (at the moment) won't be compatible.

There's also the inevitable delay for Australians wanting to take advantage of the cloud-based DRM system. When asked about timeframe for Ultra Violet, Fox's Danny Kaye explained:

"It's absolutely going to take time. But even iTunes is taking time to roll out internationally. There's nothing easy about this. But if we don't start here, it will never happen."

International issues aside, Ultra Violet is due to kick off within the next few months, with some public announcements due to be announced around next year's CES timeframe. It's going to be interesting to see how it's received, and whether or not it's the DRM that ends the hatred of DRM.

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