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UltraViolet on eBay? No big deal

October 25, 2011 |  5:49 pm

Green Lantern
The first two Blu-ray discs that support UltraViolet went on sale this month, enabling purchasers to stream or download copies of the films in addition to simply playing the disc. This week, however, reports emerged from GigaOm and the Wall Street Journal that some buyers were selling their UltraViolet rights on eBay for $1 or $2. Oh, the horror! Here's how the Journal's Michelle Kung put it:

It took three years for a consortium of more than 70 movie studios and technology companies to create UltraViolet, the new online storage service that was designed to make buying movies more appealing to tech-savvy consumers.

It’s taken those same consumers less than two weeks to figure out a low-cost work-around.

The situation isn't quite that dramatic. Consumers aren't hacking or circumventing the electronic locks that UV uses to deter unauthorized copying. They're just not using the system in the way it was designed to be used.

Specifically, some of the people who bought Warner Bros. Studios' "Green Lantern" or "Horrible Bosses" Blu-ray releases decided they didn't want the portability benefits promised by UV. Instead, they went on eBay and offered to sell the UV activation codes that came with the discs. Buyers of the codes can download a copy of the movie, something that would otherwise cost them about $15 to $20 (for a permanent copy; if they're just looking to rent, the price is $4). And because the exchanges were a private sale on eBay, Warner Bros. didn't get a cut of the proceeds.

That may be a wee bit embarrassing for Warner, but judging from the limited number of activation codes on eBay at the moment, it doesn't seem like much of a problem for UV. Nor is it unexpected. For as long as the studios have been bundling downloadable copies of movies with DVDs and Blu-ray discs, people have been selling activation codes for those downloads online.

The UV activations are more valuable than a standard download because they enable people to watch a film just about anywhere, on an assortment of computers, smartphones and connected devices. But the activation code works only once, and any copies or streams associated with that code can be played only on UV-compatible devices registered to the same person. So a code sold on eBay doesn't trigger viral copying online, unlike a movie uploaded to a file-sharing network. The worst that can happen is that one movie sale gets spread across two households.

There are more secure techniques a studio could use to register a disc-buyer's UV rights. For example, it could embed the activation code on the Blu-ray disc, which a Blu-ray player would read and transmit to UV's online rights locker. The drawback is that many consumers haven't connected their Blu-ray players to the Internet, so they would still need an alternative way to activate their UV rights.

But there seems to be little reason at this point for studios to make it harder for people to use UV. The fact that Warner Bros. isn't rushing to block the sales on eBay strongly suggests that they represent a tiny fraction of the UV-enabled disc sales. And there's arguably a benefit to the studio from the eBay exchanges: They move activation codes from those who have no interest in UV to those who want to try it out. With Disney, Apple and Amazon all pursuing competing models for digital distribution, UV needs all the customers it can get.

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Ultraviolet digital movie downloads to launch in mid-2011

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him @jcahealey.

Photo: A scene from "Green Lantern." Credit: Associated Press / Warner Bros. Pictures

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