Text by C.S. Wyatt
Streaming video services encourage us to pay more and watch more than when we bought discs. Many people subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime. They purchase movies from iTunes, Google Play and Vudu. We’re spending more on the content we watch; meanwhile, what it means to own that content has changed. At best, we are leasing digital movies.
Like most people, my wife and I replaced a video tape library with DVDs. But we aren’t updating the same movies to Blu-ray discs. We don’t plan to purchase a new 4K Blu-ray player until our standard player fails. I have decided to upgrade some movies to digital copies via Movies Anywhere and Vudu.
Streaming offers clear advantages, including watching anywhere on almost any device with a screen. Recent actions by Apple and Google suggest a bigger advantage to digital purchases: These companies upgraded quality without forcing customers to repurchase content.
When Apple upgraded iTunes content to 4K, also known as Ultra High Definition (UHD) video, previously purchased content was automatically updated to higher resolution. Many of the updated movies included support for High Dynamic Range (HDR) color and improved audio, too.
There was a downside to the upgraded quality that Apple offered. When Apple negotiated the UHD updates with film distributors, some of the companies not only resisted the upgrades, but also refused to renew contracts with Apple. As a result, some movies that customers thought they had purchased forever vanished from their personal libraries. When the copyright holder withdraws from an agreement with a digital retailer, nothing protects the rights of consumers.
Discs might not last forever, but digital copies you purchase might have shorter lifespans.
Legally, consumers buy licenses to access content. We buy the rights to listen, watch or read. The fine print of the digital agreements mentions that producers and publishers might remove content, but this came as a shock to people with massive libraries they assumed couldn’t be taken away without warning.
I insist on buying physical discs because they don’t vanish from our shelves. We purchase new additions to our library in “combo pack” editions with digital copies. Unfortunately,
if a movie was released more than three years ago, the digital access code might be expired. For films without digital codes, including films that we’ve purchased used, Walmart’s Vudu offers “Disc to Digital” pricing that starts at $2 per disc.
Vudu links to Disney’s Movies Anywhere and UltraViolet, although UltraViolet has faded in popularity without the support of Disney, Apple or Amazon. UltraViolet operates as a cooperative, a response by studios concerned that a few big digital companies controlled digital retailing. Unfortunately, without the legal authority to manage rights to Disney’s massive film library, UltraViolet struggled to remain relevant.
Movies Anywhere allows you to purchase content from one digital retailer and then add that same content to the libraries maintained by other vendors. For example, our copies of the Harry Potter movies appear on Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.
As long as a streaming device or application supports one of the major vendors, we have cloud-based streaming access to most of the movies we own. This sharing is possible because retailers store your rights to a movie. Sharing the small amount of data necessary for digital rights management (DRM) requires a few seconds of communication between retailers and Movies Anywhere or UltraViolet. These companies have been described as digital key holders.
In theory, when movie rights are synchronized via Movies Anywhere, if one retailer is required by a studio to remove a film from its library, you might still have access to the film through other online services. That was the case for some people who purchased films that were removed from iTunes.
Some of the removed films still existed on Vudu, for example.
Because films and television series might be removed from a digital retailer’s library, that’s a good reason to subscribe to Movies Anywhere and Vudu.
It is also worth noting that movies downloaded to personal storage were not deleted by Apple, Amazon or Google when they lost the rights to some content. My wife and I have a network server with terabytes of storage, and I have downloaded our legal copies of most films. We can stream from our server to our devices at home.
If you have a newer television, Blu-ray disc player or cable box, streaming requires no extra hardware. All three video devices in our home entertainment center offer streaming services, apps, games and some basic internet service. Our Blu-ray player, television and the cable box feature support for Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, Vudu and many unfamiliar services.
Even if you do need streaming hardware, the “TV sticks” that plug into HDMI ports retail for less than $50 for basic models. Roku Streaming Sticks were $25 before Christmas, and Amazon offered Fire TV Sticks in two-for-one $49 sets. Apple TV with its stunning 4K HDR support remains more expensive, starting at $150. We’re more likely to purchase an Apple TV for our entertainment center than we are to update the disc player.
An indication that streaming has won is that new 4K series on Netflix, Amazon Prime and iTunes exist only in digital form. Quality programming on these services results in both subscription fees and additional purchases.
I know that streaming has won because studios releasing films in 4K and 4K HDR formats are not producing 4K Blu-ray discs. There are only a few hundred 4K discs available, yet services offer more than 3,000 films in the best quality. Why not buy the standard Blu-ray with a digital access code? You save money and any future improvements might be included.
Competing disc formats didn’t help as consumers avoided buying hardware that might be discontinued. It is unlikely that there will be thousands of 4K discs available. If anything, the format might go the way of Blu-ray 3D.
I do fear that the time will come when studios no longer release disc versions of popular films. It’s ironic that one of the three most popular streaming services is owned by the online retailer to whom I turn for classic films on disc.