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CES 2012: Rovi lets movie fans convert DVDs to digital files for a fee

Rovi Digital Copy schematic
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Monday, Rovi Corp. announced what appears to be the first legal tool to convert consumers' DVD collections into digital files that can be played from on online library. It's not exactly iTunes Match for movies, but it's a step in the right direction, with caveats -- lots of them.

One of the main benefits of the digital revolution has been to release music, photos, books and video from their physical bindings, enabling consumers to access their media collections any time, anywhere, on a variety of devices. Those benefits haven't extended to DVDs, however; the discs' anti-piracy software deters people from making functional digital copies of the movies on the discs.

That's "deters," not "stops." It's technically possible to circumvent a DVD's safeguards and copy it, and the software exists to do so. But under federal law, it's illegal to make, sell or distribute such circumvention tools, even if the copy is being made for a legal use. And the Hollywood studios have mounted legal assaults against a series of companies (e.g., 321 Studios and RealNetworks) that have put DVD copying software on the market.

Unlike their ill-fated predecessors, Rovi isn't actually creating copies of DVD movies. Instead, it has created an app for Internet-connected Blu-ray disc players that can read the unique identifier on each DVD or Blu-ray disc, then offer the disc owner the chance to store a copy of that movie online. It won't be free, however; Richard Bullwinkle, Rovi’s chief evangelist, said the studios participating in the service plan to charge a small fee for the stored copy. The fee will be higher for high-definition copies than for standard-definition ones.

The fee is just the first of the caveats. The second is that Rovi's disc identification will work only on Blu-ray players capable of downloading and running a new Rovi application. Bullwinkle wouldn't name the manufacturers that will support Rovi's app, but the possibilities include disc players from Samsung and LG and Microsoft's XBox 360.

The third is that the stored movies will be protected by some form of digital rights management software that limits which devices can stream or download the files. Users won't be able to use the online locker of their choice; instead, they'll have to rely on a service blessed by the studios. Again, Rovi isn't identifying any specific partners yet, but a good bet would be Best Buy's CinemaNow and others that use Rovi's e-commerce technology.

In sum, here's what Rovi Digital Copy offers: the chance to buy a discounted digital copy of a movie you've already paid for that can be played on many computers, tablets, game consoles, smartphones and set-top boxes, but won't necessarily be accessible from or compatible with all of your devices.

As limited as it is, this offer may still appeal to the same people who think it's worth paying Apple $25 a year for an online copy of their digital music collection, or who bought CD copies of the vinyl albums on their bookshelves. And as demonstrated by the popularity of online photo sites, there is something powerfully appealing about being able to shift a media collection from one's living room or home computer to the cloud, where it can be enjoyed from just about anywhere.

Even the relatively small step forward represented by Rovi Digital Copy is still a leap for the piracy-phobic Hollywood studios. Their main argument against other approaches to DVD copying has been that they enabled people to copy movies rented from Netflix or borrowed from friends, creating permanent collections on the cheap. Rovi's software can't stop that sort of behavior, either; instead, it minimizes the effect by allowing only one digital copy to be bought per disc. Nevertheless, that curb was enough to satisfy Rovi's studio partners.

Rovi's service helps plug a gaping hole in Hollywood's UltraViolet initiative, which encourages people to buy Blu-ray discs by including access to a digital copy of that movie in the cloud. So far, however, UltraViolet only works for selected new Blu-ray releases. As a result, it's trying to sell people on the benefits of movie ownership -- in particular, the ability to enjoy a film anywhere, any time, and on a variety of devices -- that applies only to a fraction of the titles in their collection. Rovi's solution can extend those benefits potentially to a movie lover's entire DVD and Blu-ray collection -- for a fee, unfortunately, and with non-trivial caveats.

RELATED:

Post-DVD Hollywood

Editorial: Is UltraViolet movie magic?

CES: Moving your DVD collection to the cloud?

-- Jon Healey in Las Vegas

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him at twitter.com/jcahealey.

Image: A chart showing how Rovi Digital Copy would work. Credit: Rovi

 

 
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