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20th C Fox debuts DVDs with digital copies

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The battle for the next generation of DVD formats may have been won by Blu-Ray, but it may be a short-lived victory. An announcement by Twentieth Century Fox and Apple at last week’s Macworld Expo was a signal that the migration to digitally distributed movies has begun. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK examines the announcement and its implications…

It was an announcement that was couched in the best of public relations turns of phrase, but beneath it lurked a terrible truth. When Twentieth Century Fox and Apple unveiled Digital Copy for iTunes last Tuesday at the Macworld Expo, they presented it as an added feature that would enhance DVDs.

However, it more likely represents the first step towards consumers’ embrace of the digital distribution of movies. For the motion picture industry, it also signals the beginning of a race to find the best technology for managing this distribution – and a major threat to the huge revenues that accrue to movies after they have moved off the cinema circuit and onto DVD.

‚One of the most requested features DVD buyers have been asking for is the ability to get the movies they bought into their iTunes library,‚ said Jim Gianopulos, chairman and chief executive officer of Fox Filmed Entertainment. ‚We’re thrilled to offer such an incredibly simple way for our customers to get even more out of their DVD purchase, and we look forward to releasing many more DVDs this year with iTunes Digital Copy.‚

Apple CEO Steve Jobs was equally upbeat – if not disingenuous: ‚Now movie fans can easily transfer a free copy of the movie they purchase on DVD into iTunes. DVDs containing an iTunes Digital Copy allow movie fans to get a copy of their movie which can be viewed on a computer, iPod, iPhone or on Apple TV.‚

Digital Copy for iTunes provides customers who purchase a DVD with an additional digital copy of the movie. Like movies purchased from the iTunes Store, an iTunes Digital Copy can be transferred to iTunes and then viewed on a PC or Mac, iPod with video, iPhone or on Apple TV.

Once a customer buys the DVD, they insert it into their computer, enter a unique code into iTunes and iTunes automatically copies the movie to their iTunes library. Customers own the iTunes Digital Copy of the movie and it has the same viewing options as other iTunes Store video content. But each DVD will only transfer its iTunes Digital Copy to one iTunes library.

The buyer of DVDs could be forgiven for assuming that this should always have been a right, rather than a favour bestowed on them by Messrs Gianopulos and Jobs. And a single-library limitation has an unfortunate parallel: a widespread view in the music industry that the purchaser of a digital song should only be allowed to store it on the device to which it was downloaded. That is a little like limiting the playing of a CD to the one CD player in which it was first played.

It is a little ironic that the first DVD to make its debut with iTunes Digital Copy is the Special Edition DVD premiere of the Family Guy ‚Star Wars‚ parody, Family Guy Presents: Blue Harvest, released in stores in the USA last week. Family Guy is an outrageously irreverent TV series about a family that is utterly dysfunctional. It is often accused of borrowing its themes and ideas from The Simpsons and South Park, yet it has attracted a devoted following of its own. The Fox Broadcasting Company cancelled the show twice, but both times bowed to audience pressure to reinstate it. The show is therefore deeply symbolic of the entertainment industry’s inability to read the signals from their public. This lack of vision is best reflected by the issue which has bedevilled the music industry, namely digital rights management (DRM).

iTunes Digital Copy is the first crossover of DRM from physical to digitally distributed movies, and it is already a flawed model, in the limitations it places on the user. The music industry spent so much time and effort trying tohold back the inevitable, they have been caught napping by the rapid rise of digital distribution, and the implosion of the CD market. There is little to suggest the motion picture industry will be visionary enough to avoid this potholed road onto the new information highway.

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