Star Wars: The Digital Rights Muddle

Apr 12, 2015 by

This is an editorial opinion by Digital Media Zone editor Richard Gunther

Screenshot 2015-04-09 13.07.01With great hoopla, Lucasfilm has released the Star Wars movies as digital downloads. All six movies are now available for purchase individually or as a collection. Sure, they’re the special editions, where effects and scenes have been “enhanced,” like the controversial who-shot-first scene with Han and Greedo, but the real offense is that Star Wars may be the perfect poster child for the licensing rights issues that create unnecessary and unacceptable confusion for consumers.

As we all know by now, Disney purchased Lucasfilm, including its back-catalog of titles, like the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. So it would follow that Disney would now release the films again before the highly anticipated sequel comes out later this year, right? Not so fast. Disney does not own the distribution rights to the original Star Wars movie, now known as Star Wars: A New Hope. 20th Century Fox does. And rather than coming to some cooperative distribution agreement that would benefit consumers, Fox and Disney have executed a coordinated release that ultimately makes it harder to purchase and watch these movies.

DMZ Twitter follower Eric Jilot wrote a blog post running through the many convoluted purchase and viewing options consumers have. Apropos of the complex licensing issues behind the collection, it’s a hard read. The bottom line is that depending on where you buy the movies, you likely won’t be able to watch them all where you’d expect to. And because the distribution rights for the original Star Wars movie are owned by Fox, some services aren’t even selling Star Wars: A New Hope.

If you buy from Apple’s iTunes Store, you can buy all six movies. You might expect that would mean you could then watch them all through any of the affiliated Disney Movies Anywhere services, including VUDU and Google Play. You’d be wrong. If you buy from iTunes, only I, II, III, V, and VI will be available for playback with Disney Movies Anywhere, et al. But Star Wars IV (A New Hope) can only be viewed through iTunes. The same is true if you buy from the Google Play Store.

VUDU may be your best bet if you’re not mired in the Apple ecosystem. If you purchase through VUDU, I, II, III, V, and VI will sync with your Disney Movies Anywhere and Google Play accounts. And while it’s not clearly indicatedStar Wars IV will sync with some UltraViolet services. Why not all? Because some video services don’t have the movie available. This includes Disney Movies Anywhere and CinemaNow. So even though CinemaNow is an UltraViolet partner, you won’t be able to watch this particular UltraViolet purchase through that service!

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Well, you say, maybe I’ll just do a digital conversion of my Star Wars DVDs since they’re now available digitally. Nope. There is no DVD conversion option for the Star Wars movies through any of the services offering such capabilities.

UGH! What a muddle. Why is it this hard? What’s going on here? It boils down to DRM—digital rights management. And not just the annoying DRM that makes it hard to watch the properly licensed media that you’ve purchased, but specifically two competing digital asset “locker” systems created by Time Warner and Disney. Personally, I blame Disney for their continued habit of bucking the home video industry and insisting on doing things their own way. And I don’t say that lightly. I’m a Disney freak. I purchase nearly all their movies, I’ve bought into Vacation Club, and I own stock in the company.

But Disney purportedly created Disney Movies Anywhere specifically to offer consumers greater flexibility. And by refusing to partner with UltraViolet, instead positioning its system as a competitor to UltraViolet, Disney has created yet another format war that’s fracturing the consumer experience.

How fitting that one of Disney’s own properties—a collection like Star Wars, which is so deeply steeped in our movie-going and popular culture—is the product to expose how unreasonably complicated our DRM’ed video distribution system has become. Disney needs to fix this. At least for this specific release, they should throw whatever money is necessary at a licensing agreement that will make this experience easier. They should have done that prior to the release.