A group of Hollywood studios and technology companies has come up with a system for buying digital movies and TV shows that's supposed to do away with the problem of content being locked to a narrow set of devices by the company that sold it.
They say the system, called UltraViolet, will allow consumers to buy a DVD or digital download and then watch it on almost any TV, computer or games console from any participating manufacturer, regardless of where it was bought.
It should also give people lifetime content ownership rights, instead of having to repurchase the work if it gets lost or wears out, said Richard Doherty, an industry analyst with Envisioneering Group.
"If it works, I won't have to buy The White Album eight times any more," he said.
DRM by another name?
The effort faces some big obstacles, including getting consumers to understand it and buy into it. Some critics have complained that UltraViolet is just another form of DRM (digital rights management) in disguise. And at least two big players, Apple and Walt Disney Studios, have declined to get on board.
But the effort is backed by virtually every other major US studio, technology giants like Microsoft, HP and Sony as well as consumer electronics makers like Panasonic and Samsung.
After three years of work, the 60 companies behind the effort gave a timetable for its introduction at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. They plan to start rolling it out in the US in the middle of the year, followed by Canada and the UK before the end of 2011.
The studios see it as a way to boost flagging sales of their products, which they think have slowed because people are fed up with buying digital content and feeling like they don't really own it, because they can't play it wherever they want.
"Consumers aren't confident they'll be able to watch content in the future on devices of their choice, so they've stopped collecting content," said Mitch Singer, CTO for Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Doherty said UltraViolet won't replace the existing DRM systems, but that it will be a layer on top of them that provides the permissions for content to play on various devices. It's been described as an evolution of technology standards like Blu-ray and DVD.
The system is supposed to work like this: Starting this summer, participating companies like Netflix and Best Buy will start selling DVDs and digital downloads marked with the UltraViolet logo. Consumers are supposed to go home, set up a free UltraViolet account online and register their new purchase there, perhaps with a numerical code.
That creates their UltraViolet "digital locker", a place where information is stored about each creative work they own. Each household will be able to register up to six people to a digital locker. They must also register up to 12 hardware devices where they will be able to play their UltraViolet movies and TV shows.
They'll then be able to watch that content on any of those devices, as well as on any participating streaming media and cable service, regardless of where they bought the content. So if they bought a movie on DVD from Best Buy, for example, they should be able to watch it streamed to their Xbox console once they have entered the code to show they own it in their digital locker.
They should also be able to watch their content away from home, in a hotel with a video on demand service, for example. So if they bought the first series of "Glee" on Netflix, they'll be able to watch it while on vacation if the video on demand service at the hotel is an UltraViolet member.
The 12-device limit is likely to raise some hackles, but Doherty says Apple and Microsoft limit people to five devices today for their iTunes and Zune services. Getting the movie studios to agree to 12 devices was a big concession on their part, he said.
The studios say people will be able to update those 12 devices over time, so when an old computer dies they'll be able to remove it from the list and register another one.
At the end of the year, UltraViolet plans to introduce a new file format. People will then be able to burn movies they buy to a disk or USB stick and play them on their other 12 devices, said Mark Teitell, general manager of the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, or DECE, the industry group formed to steer the effort.
The project has seen an unmatched level of cooperation among those involved, according to Doherty. More engineers have worked on it than on the Blu-ray standard, he said.
If all goes as planned, hardware makers will introduce TVs and Blu-ray players with the required chipset and firmware updates for UltraViolet in 2012, said Tae-Jin Kang, a senior vice president with Samsung Electronics. That may include things like built-in menu listings that let people see their UltraViolet content.
Doherty thinks it unlikely that Apple will join the effort, at least for now, because its iTunes system is working well for it. But the studios claim not to be concerned. They say Apple users will still be able play UltraViolet content on Macintosh computers.
"So on the device side it's not an issue. On the services side, Apple has been incredibly successful, but just as we have struggled with making digital ownership in video a big business, they have struggled too," said JB Perrette, president for Digital and Affiliate Distribution at NBC Universal, implying Apple will have some incentive to join.
Disney has its own competing technology, called Keychest, and it's unclear of the company will give that up to join UltraViolet.
As well as laying out the timetable Thursday, DECE said it had finalised the technology specifications so that manufacturers and service providers start building UltraViolet products.
UltraViolet isn't without precedent, and a Microsoft executive at the launch event was reminded that his company tried and failed with a similar initiative, called PlaysForSure, about a decade ago. He said PlaysForSure failed because Microsoft wasn't prescriptive enough with its specifications to device makers.
"The difference here is the technology specifications have been set," said the executive, Blair Westlake, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Media & Entertainment Group. "It's been a very long and tedious process but that's where the rubber met the road."