The Wild, Wonderful, and Extraordinarily Convoluted World of Digital Movie Ownership

Depending on who you ask, we’re either in the beginning of a transition to a fully-digital media environment, or we’re already there. Services like Netflix and Spotify have given users access to an unprecedented array of entertainment options, and platforms like iTunes and Steam have made true digital ownership a modern reality. However, when it comes to digital ownership of films and television, no one platform has truly taken hold. There are dozens of storefronts, such as iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft, Sony, and Vudu. But no store’s library is universally accessible from all devices, meaning digital owners often find themselves purchasing only on the storefront that is most convenient for them, or finding their libraries stretched out over a bunch of segregated storefronts.

In past years, the closest thing to a solution has been the Ultraviolet platform. While users can play back their movies and TV shows on Ultraviolet if they choose to do so, it’s true utility is in interconnecting various services and storefronts so that media is shared throughout. If somebody purchases a blu-ray with a digital copy or buys a movie on Vudu, that media will be shared with a linked Ultraviolet account which then redeems the same movie on studio’s storefronts, as well as other third party streaming services like (the now-defunct) Flixster. Even better, multiple Ultraviolet users can join together as a “family,” meaning all of their media is shared with each other across all platforms.

It’s always been a slightly problematic platform, though. Because digital copy needed to be redeemed via the studio’s storefront, users had to create several usernames/passwords on different stores and link them all back to Ultraviolet. Storefronts don’t always have all of the same movies, either; for instance, it was possible to have a movie show up on Vudu but not Flixster, because it didn’t exist on Flixster’s servers. It also never connected with some of the most popular platforms, and has never been supported by Disney, arguably the largest and most desired studio of them all.

In October of 2017, though, things changed. Disney finally decided to enter the shared library game in a big way, by rebranding its segregated “Disney Movies Anywhere” service as just “Movies Anywhere.” Not only are they now streaming movies from other studios, but they’ve also set up their service as its own Ultraviolet competitor. Users can link their accounts not only with Vudu, but with the other major digital film/television vendors: iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon. “It’s simplicity. It’s ease of use. It’s bringing it together all in one place. It’s going to be amazing,” beamed Movies Anywhere GM Karin Gilford.

In many ways, this is a great step forward for digital ownership. The Vudu-Movies Anywhere link allows most Vudu/Ultraviolet movies to duplicate to the Movies Anywhere library and continue onto a user’s Google Play and Amazon accounts. But it comes with a number of its own limitations, none of which are communicated to the user. The existence of both library-sharing platforms has complicated the digital media rights landscape to a pretty significant degree. Here’s a gorgeous MS Paint graph, created by yours truly, explaining how exactly everything works together:

Wow. Let’s go over some of the biggest restrictions.

Issue 1: Media redeemed on Movies Anywhere is more restricted than media redeemed elsewhere

First off: anything redeemed on Movies Anywhere is NOT COMPATIBLE WITH THE ULTRAVIOLET NETWORK. This isn’t something that’s immediately apparent on the platform, because it contradicts the fundamental way that Ultraviolet operates.

Perhaps it’s best to think of Ultraviolet as a “viral” network of media ownership. Basically, any content that exists in any Ultraviolet-partner library is immediately shared with all other Ultraviolet partners. This means that the actual store used for redemption is largely irrelevant; you can redeem on the studio page (as usually suggested on the card included with blu-ray discs), or directly on Vudu, and it doesn’t really make any functional difference. Both storefronts will accept the code, and the movie/TV show will be accessible everywhere.

You would think, then, that anything redeemed on Movies Anywhere would transfer to Vudu, and then Vudu would pass them onto the Ultraviolet library. But you’d be wrong. Disney apparently doesn’t like the idea of its media being passed along the chain, so they don’t allow it. So everything you redeem on Movies Anywhere WILL appear in your Vudu library, but WILL NOT be passed along to your Ultraviolet library, or any other Ultraviolet partners.

Issue 2: Movies Anywhere does not support “family” media sharing…except where it does.

The biggest problem with Movies Anywhere’s shunning of the Ultraviolet platform is that, because the media doesn’t hit Ultraviolet, it’s ALSO not shared with your Ultraviolet “family.” In my case, this means my friend who shares libraries with me will not receive anything I redeem on Movies Anywhere. That’s sort of irritating, but understandable, if that’s the way DIsney wants to handle their media.

But this limitation doesn’t JUST extend to Disney movies. Movies Anywhere allows users to redeem ANY digital copy code, without informing the user of these restrictions. So when I received a bounty of blu-rays in the mail from Amazon, and tried redeeming them on Movies Anywhere instead of Vudu, I crippled my media library without really realizing it.

This is all sort of confusing, so maybe an example will help. I redeemed the movie Blade Runner 2049 on Movies Anywhere, and I redeemed Dunkirk on Vudu. Both movies now exist on Vudu AND Movies Anywhere. However, my friend who shares my Ultraviolet Library ONLY has access to Dunkirk, because Vudu passed that film along to Ultraviolet while keeping Blade Runner 2049 locked down.

“But Ross,” an educated reader might say, “that sounds like everything is just passed along by one link. So Vudu passed Dunkirk to Ultraviolet and Movies Anywhere, and Movies Anywhere passed Blade Runner 2049 to Vudu, Google Play, Amazon, and iTunes. It’s just a matter of choosing which platform, Movies Anywhere or Ultraviolet, provides me with more benefits.”

You’d think that…but you’d be wrong.
In reality, the block ONLY GOES IN ONE DIRECTION. So even though I redeemed Dunkirk on Vudu, which doesn’t directly link to Amazon/Google/iTunes, Movies Anywhere IS passing it onto those services. I now have both Dunkirk AND Blade Runner 2049 in my Vudu, Movies Anywhere, iTunes, Google, and Amazon, while only Dunkirk appears in my Ultraviolet account, or on any of the studio storefronts.

After discovering this one-way block the hard way, I tried contacting Movies Anywhere’s support line. I asked whether I could un-redeem the movies I redeemed on Movies Anywhere so I could redeem them on Vudu and gain “family” sharing privileges. I was told that they were capable of removing movies from my account, but not renewing the codes once redeemed, which obviously would not serve me much use. The representative suggested that I reach out to the studios to see if they’ll re-activate it elsewhere, a method that I’m sure will be successful around the time pigs begin soaring over a frozen hellscape.

Also interesting is the official company line about why this is: they claim that for now, they do not support family sharing. That’s all well and good, but it’s inconsistent. Google Play, for instance, has its OWN family sharing system, and content from both Movies Anywhere AND Vudu (through the Movies Anywhere intermediary) actually do share via this platform. So, to go back to my earlier example, Blade Runner 2049 is now available to my wife’s parents via a Google Play family share, but not to my friend over Ultraviolet’s very similar service. All because it was redeemed on one store, and not the other.

Issue 3: Movies Anywhere’s limited library hamstrings the expansion of your movie library

Another major point of confusion is that the lack of a certain movie or show on one platform can prevent it from chaining to another. With Ultraviolet, this is essentially a moot point, since nearly all blu-ray releases have been designed to interact with Ultraviolet, and therefore exist on their server listings. But Movies Anywhere is still a fairly new service, and it has quite a ways to go before it catches up to Ultraviolet and Vudu. It also seems that there is no separate mechanism on the platform for tracking what users OWN versus what they CAN WATCH ON MOVIES ANYWHERE.

This can cause issues across various platforms. For example, I own 10 Cloverfield Lane on Vudu. For whatever reason, this movie does not exist on Movies Anywhere’s service, so as far as they’re concerned, I don’t own it. This means that even though the movie DOES exist across Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play, none of those services are aware that I have it because Movies Anywhere, the gatekeeper to those services, doesn’t recognize it. This seems to be true of roughly 20 movies in my library, so it’s a pretty wide-ranging issue.

So I still want to have a digital library, but I want to keep things as simple as possible. What do I do?

My advice: REDEEM EVERYTHING ON VUDU. It accepts all codes across all studios, will pass on everything BUT Disney movies to the Ultraviolet network/family share, and will pass EVERYTHING to Movies Anywhere, where all recognized titles will be sent to iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play (with Family Share). Obviously, the major limitations still apply; Disney movies won’t be shared with your Ultraviolet family, and anything missing from the Movies Anywhere library won’t get sent to iTunes/Amazon/Google, but every single movie will be available in the absolute maximum number of places. And if a title doesn’t exist on Movies Anywhere and is added at a later date, it SHOULD be added and passed onto more stores automatically.

That sucks about the Disney movies, but otherwise it’s pretty manageable. So why care about these issues?

Well, I don’t consider myself to be an average movie consumer. I work in the entertainment industry and have had prior experience in technical support and networking, so I was able to work out how these systems intermingle via trial and error. But imagine being a mother or father, without the time or capacity to investigate this stuff. It is absurdly easy to accidentally redeem your kid’s movie on a service which they can’t actually access via their devices. Navigating all of the reasons why certain movies show up in some stores but not others requires an understanding of media rights, the limitations of specific libraries, and the intermingling of two different DRM-sharing platforms independently designed without a true understanding of how the other would work. That’s no way to make digital ownership viable to a mass consumer-base.

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