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Listen Up Hollywood: Copy Protection Needs to Go

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In early March, members of the press received an announcement from Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.’s PR firm alerting us to an upcoming press conference that would present a “milestone in entertainment.” Something so big that “the way people enjoy movies will change.”

Setting aside for a moment the real announcements I’d like to see from Wal-Mart—“the way we compensate our employees will change” or “a milestone in Wal-Mart’s efforts to revitalize dying downtowns across America”—I couldn’t help but be as intrigued as I was skeptical.

So I tuned in to the live webcast of the press conference, which also featured spokespeople from the five major Hollywood studios, even though Dan Rayburn got the scoop a day before the event. Dan revealed that the retailer had reached a deal with UltraViolet partners FOX Broadcasting Co., Paramount Pictures, Sony Entertainment, Universal Pictures, and Warner Bros. to launch a program that would allow customers to take any DVD or Blu-ray Disc to one of Wal-Mart’s stores, pay $2, and have a digital copy authorized for viewing via the VUDU service ($5 to upgrade a standard-def disc to HD, though the company is not saying how it’s defining HD).

I wish I’d been in the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles where the press conference was held, just so I could have asked Wal-Mart and studio execs one question: “What the hell are you thinking?”

In a time when the music industry has abandoned copy protection, the movie industry is doubling down—begrudgingly admitting that, yes, you bought that movie on optical media and should be able to watch it how you want, where you want, but only if you fork over a few more bucks for the copies. (Oh, and you still won’t be able to watch it everywhere—only on devices that feature the VUDU app or that can access the web, and only when they’re online. Plus, Disney’s not playing, neither are Apple and Amazon. You’re welcome.)

This is what breeds piracy, both by people who simply, legitimately want a digital copy of something they’ve already bought—whether it’s to watch it on a trip or to have a backup for the next time one of the kids plays fetch with the dog and a DVD—and by people who resent Hollywood’s attempt to gouge them so, instead, they turn to torrent sites.

Record labels tried to discourage legitimate fair use, starting with the “Home Taping Is Killing Music” PR campaign in the 1980s, continuing with Sony and other labels installing copy protection software on CDs, and ending up with iTunes’ FairPlay copy protection, before finally abandoning it altogether in 2009. Consumers can download music from any source or buy CDs and rip them to their computers, and then play it back on the device of their choosing. And, whaddya know, music sales were up in 2011 for the first time since 2004.

DVD sales dropped 20% from 2010 to 2011, and increases in Blu-ray sales and digital downloading and viewing didn’t come anywhere near making up the difference. With broadband speeds still increasing and mobile and tablet sales showing no signs of slowing down, legal downloading and rentals are only going to increase, but so will the use of BitTorrent.

Hollywood could do itself—and its shrinking audience—a favor by following the music industry’s lead and simply removing copy protection from DVDs and digital downloads altogether. Charge a fair price, and let people do with the content what they want to. Time-limited rentals tied to a particular device or service will still have their appeal, as will Netflix and similar streaming services.

That’s what people want, and the losses attributable to sharing and piracy will be mitigated by an increase in revenue from consumers who can purchase a movie or TV series and have confidence they’ll be able to watch it wherever and however they want.

This article was originally published in the April/May 2012 issue of Streaming Media magazine under the title "Give the People What they Want."

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