UltraViolet is the consumer brand for an ambitious initiative from the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, a cross-industry consortium including major media companies, consumer electronics manufacturers and digital rights management providers. It aims to provide a system to allow consumers to share digital media they purchase in a controlled manner. UltraViolet will provide a centralized licence locker that grants access to material on compatible devices registered to a household account. It sounds fine in principle but there could be problems in practice.
The UltraViolet licensing programme for media, technology and service providers has now opened. Later this year, consumers in the United States will be able to purchase movies and television shows with UltraViolet rights.
The technical specifications include a common file format for downloads, designed to work with multiple digital rights management systems.
The centralized UltraViolet license broker will be developed and operated by Neustar, a directory and registry operator for telephony and internet services.
The UltraViolet promise initially appears generous compared to competing propositions. Once purchased, UltraViolet branded digital media can be shared among up to six members of a household account on up to twelve registered devices.
The definition of a “household” is deliberately vague but suggests a rather idealised notion of a family unit and perhaps a few friends. It seems convenient but may not be the right model.
The modern household may involve a range of relationships that may come and go. It is not clear who will be responsible for administering membership of such a household account. It is equally unclear whether it will be possible to assign rights to others, or to revoke them.
This raises the interesting question of how people will go about dividing up their virtual disc collection if they ever split up. What happens when a teenager leaves home and begins to establish other relationships?
What about when they leave the country, or live in another country? The rules are not currently clear on this, but given that media rights are often territorially windowed, this likely to be problematic.
Furthermore, it is unclear how such a system will work across multiple legal jurisdictions, each with different interpretations of consumer rights.
As online social networks demonstrate, our relationships with others are fundamentally egocentric, that is centred on the individual and their various relationships with others, which may be at many levels and highly complex, and tend to change over time.
Perhaps some sociologists should have been involved in conceiving this scheme. After all, UltraViolet is attempting to create a technological solution to a problem that is ultimately social, legal and economic.
Fundamental issues arise from attempting to suggest that a digital right confers some form of property ownership. In reality it does not. The very notions of download to own or electronic sell through are fundamentally flawed and dangerously misleading.
When a user buys a work on a physical format, like a disc, they may justifiably feel that they own it as an asset. Generally speaking, however, they are really purchasing a form of software licence.
A user typically buys or rents a limited licence to use a media experience in specific ways. For instance, this typically prohibits unauthorized copying, hiring, lending, public performance or transmission.
The ability to share that experience, without breaching these terms, is also intrinsically limited by its physical format. In effect, it can only be played in one device at a time, unless it is copied.
One of the reasons that people copy digital media is to be able to access it on other devices and in other contexts. If they believe they have paid to “own” such media they may feel that this is legitimate, and in some cases it may indeed constitute fair use.
When a user purchases access to media as a stream or download, the perception of ownership is less clear. Any limitation on legitimate sharing is necessarily arbitrary, typically technically imposed and based on business rules or legislation that may or may not seem reasonable or sufficiently flexible to the end users.
That is the premise of many new digital subscription services, from Netflix to Spotify, which appear to offer the considerable value of access to a vast library for what may appear to be a reasonable monthly fee.
Producers of packaged media, like discs, understand that they need to migrate their consumers to a world of virtual products, in which the customer is simply buying a right to access a media property.
UltraViolet attempts to address this challenge but the consumer awareness communication required is considerable. The language that it employs in its messaging to consumers will be critically important. Presentation and perception are everything if UltraViolet is to gain user acceptance.
In establishing the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem consortium, the various media and technology partners are attempting to control the keys to the digital media kingdom.
Although the DECE consortium is very broadly based, it means that a single entity will be responsible for managing the licences to consumers. If successful, this gives that organization an effective monopoly on the market, which is unlikely to encourage healthy competition.
The Walt Disney Company is conspicuous by its absence in the consortium, although that does not necessarily prevent it from participating. Disney is closely aligned to Apple, which is promoting its own proprietary ecosystem through iTunes and its forthcoming iCloud service. Apple is on course to having the largest market capitalization of any company in the world.
The dominance of a single player is no healthier for the consumer but at least it is open for others to compete on merit. So far, the might of Microsoft has failed to establish a credible digital rights management regime.
A complex ecosystem like UltraViolet remains vulnerable to exploitation and will present a prime target for hackers. Every digital rights management mechanism that Hollywood has come up with so far is open to circumvention, legally or illegally.
The real competition for any digital rights management scheme will come from the ease with which it can be effectively circumvented. It is relatively trivial for the average consumer to copy a protected DVD. Whether it is strictly legal is another matter. Yet this affords many of the benefits of enabling the media to be easily accessed and carried around on devices that do not play such discs.
Then there is the question of consumer trust. Sony, which is a leading proponent of the DECE consortium, recently suffered a substantial security breach, which compromised the personal information of tens of millions of customers.
This is not only a security issue but also a matter of personal privacy. Users may resent the idea that an organization is effectively watching over them as their watch their media.
Unlike previous attempts at copy protection, which have been constrained by physical devices, UltraViolet takes account of the concept of cloud delivery, which separates the means by which digital media is delivered from the right to access it.
The reality is that consumers will no longer own published media, or more accurately be under any such illusion. They will instead increasingly rent or subscribe to access such media experiences.
Many, if not most, people are willing and able to pay for choice, convenience and control of their media and entertainment experiences. Providing media owners offer access on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, and consumers do not feel constrained by the technical means of implementation, the relative freedom and flexibility offered by UltraViolet may be sufficient to inhibit casual copying.
However, as long as consumers continue to purchase physical media, the concepts of ownership and access to media will remain confused. Then again, the days of buying movies on discs may already be numbered.