The illusion of ownership

Age of the Geek Column: UltraViolet will be shutting down this year.

There are a multitude of ways to watch various movies and television shows online and UltraViolet was… one of them. Established by a consortium of studios, retailers, and internet service providers, UltraViolet was created as a way to streamline digital rights management for streaming movies and television.

On the surface it may seem like a simple process to take a code from a DVD case and punch it in to a website to activate a digital copy, but thanks to the labyrinth of licensing and copyright law it’s handy to have a system that keeps everybody on the same page.

I can't say I've ever really used the service myself. Sure, I registered some of the free codes that came with various physical purchases, but circumstances have never led to me needing to use them to watch a particular movie. In order for me to actually utilize an UltraViolet code it would have to be a movie that I wanted to watch, but didn't have immediate access to via physical media and isn't already available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or any of the other multitude of streaming services out there, legitimate or otherwise. Really, at that point, I'd probably just find something else to watch.

That said, while the passing of UltraViolet may not inconvenience me, it does underscore a burgeoning issue that will become more prevalent as we head deeper into the Internet Age. Namely that digital ownership is not really ownership at all.

Come July 31, all those unused UltraViolet codes will become literally useless instead of just practically useless and if you haven't already linked your UltraViolet account to one or more streaming services the movies you have registered will vanish forever.

Even then, you're just delaying the inevitable.

My UltraViolet account is linked to something called Vudu, which appears to be a digital streaming service owned by Wal-Mart. If I'm ever in a situation where I desperately need to watch "The Lego Movie" or "Paranormal Activity" and have exhausted all other options, Vudu will be there for me.

Until it's not.

After all, there's no guarantee that Wal-Mart will continue to support Vudu indefinitely. What do I do then?

Well, my Vudu account is linked to Disney's Movies Anywhere service, which is ironic since Disney's refusal to participate in the UltraViolet program is being partially credited for its downfall. So even if Vudu goes down, the movies I'm licensed to watch on that service will also be watchable on Movies Anywhere, with a catch. Disney has to have the same distribution rights that Wal-Mart does for any given movie.

In this case, while my ability to watch "The Lego Movie" on demand will remain intact, "Paranormal Activity" is not available on Movies Anywhere, so that license could be lost to the digital ether.

Again, this isn't a practical problem by any means. I don't foresee the loss of access to a handful of movies on a service I don't regularly use anyway to be a huge inconvenience. But movies aren't the only digital content out there.

Your digital collection of music and movies on iTunes, Google Play, or Amazon are no more secure. Sure, it's unlikely that these services will go under tomorrow, or next month, or next year, but nothing lasts forever. What happens then?

For me in particular, I have spent hundreds of dollars on video games on Steam over the last decade or so, some of which I've actually played.

I'm not anticipating that Steam will be shutting down its servers tomorrow, but what happens if they do? A large collection of games that I've bought and paid for, regardless if I've ever downloaded them or not, will be lost to me in that case. Even the ones that I am playing could be rendered unplayable if Steam is no longer around to verify that it's a legitimate copy. Valve says that they have a contingency plan to make sure everybody is able to download and play their game libraries in the event that the company folds, but for now I'm hoping that doesn't get put to the test.

As physical media falls to the wayside, more and more of our "owned" content will be subject to this situation, available only as long as the company is around to maintain it. For years now we've enjoyed the benefits of digital media on-demand. It's immensely convenient to be able to log into any random device and have immediate access to a library of content. It's great to not have to worry about misplacing disks or running out of shelf space to store your collection of games, movies, and music.

But that convenience comes at a cost and it looks like we may have to start dealing with that.

Travis Fischer is a news writer for Mid-America Publishing and tries not to get too attached to physical things, much less digital ones.