Flixster, UltraViolet, and the ongoing digital movie download muddle

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As more of us switch to digital downloads of our movies, question marks remain as to what happens when a service shuts down.

Whilst more and more of the marketplace heads towards digital downloads over buying physical discs of movies, there remains a degree of worry over just where people’s rights lie if they don’t have a disc in your hand.

Granted, as much as the marketing campaigns pushing you to buy a movie to own were always a bit folly (even though we all bought discs, all that in the eyes of the law gave us was a license to watch the film in a non-commercial screening), there’s something tangible nonetheless about having a disc in your hand. Internet goes down? It’s no problem if you actually have a DVD/Blu-ray/Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray/HD DVD/Laserdisc/VHS/Betamax of the film in question.

But there’s a further problem, and that’s over the companies offering you digital downloads of your movies. Basically: what happens if said companies stop trading, or get out of the movie business?

Over the past few months, we’ve been seeing how that pans out with the closure of the UltraViolet digital movie locker service.

UltraViolet, you may recall, launched around a decade ago, as the film industry’s attempt to head off digital piracy to some degree. That when you bought a DVD or Blu-ray, a film may contain a leaflet in it that in turn contained a code. Enter that code, and it was added to your UltraViolet account, giving you a digital version of a film as well as a physical one.

Many major studios (although not all) jumped aboard, with the likes of Universal, Warner Bros, Sony, Fox and Lionsgate all offering UltraViolet options with a purchase.

It was always something of a muddy scheme, though, as you then needed to link your UltraViolet account to a third party store, through which you’d access your digital movies. In the UK, the service burned through a few of them, with companies such as HMV, Rakuten and TalkTalk at different stages supporting the service, and then backing out.

At the start of the year, then, came the announcement that UltraViolet was to close. This wasn’t a massive surprise, give that most studios had begun to withdraw support for it. But it meant that users had until July 31st until their accounts and the service came to an end.

Not to worry, though. There was still one third party company supporting UltraViolet libraries in the UK, and films would still be accessible through there. The further problem though is that that company is Flixster. Flixster had already wound down its US operations, and then came the announcement that the UK side is closing too. UltraViolet users were left in limbo.

Since all this became known, further information has been on the scant side. Flixster has assured its UK users that their movies will transfer to a Google Play account, which at least offers some solidity: Google’s hardly likely to be going anywhere first, and it seems that in-date, unredeemed UltraViolet codes are defaulting to Google Play too.

But still, most people who use the Flixster service still don’t seem to know this, let alone how their account will be migrated (again).

Flixster sent a mail out to its userbase in July, stating that “we have made arrangements with Google Play to enable you to migrate available videos in your Flixster Video collection to Google Play. While we had expected the Flixster Video – Google Play migration process to be available in July, this migration process is not yet ready and available for Flixster Video users. We expect to launch this service soon and appreciate your patience”.

However, the migration process is not yet available in September, and UltraViolet shuttered six weeks ago at the time this is being written.

On this Google Play support thread, one user posted a note they got from the support team last week where they were told that “for the vast majority of Flixster users, all of their collections will be able to be migrated”.

But that’s language that leaves huge amounts of room for exceptions. Will all the movies and TV shows acquired legally through the UltraViolet service still be able when UK users migrate them all to Google Play? Nobody seems to be able to say with any certainty.

Separately, and unrelated, last week a fine reader (as you all are) got in touch and told me his digital copy of Annabelle had suddenly become unavailable, and he was granted a replacement film from a (long) list in its place. Quite why Annabelle had stopped working wasn’t known, but that goes to the core of the worry over digital film libraries: what guarantee do you have that a film will become unavailable?

Also, whilst in the case of UltraViolet and Flixster clearly efforts are being made for continuity of service, why is the onus on the consumer to do the linking of accounts to make that happen? Surely we just want to buy and watch movies, not do a bit of extra admin?

Of course, for the vast majority of movies, for the vast majority of the time, there isn’t a problem. The reason stories spike about people losing access to digital movies is because they tend to be on the very rare side.

But still: there are problems here, and problems that aren’t being solved or communicated as well as they could be. The next deadline in the cases above is 31st October 2019, which is when Flixster UK is due to cease its services. That gives it just over six weeks to not only come up with its solution, but implement it, and communicate it. Because right now, too many people still appear to be in the dark…

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