Star Trek digital download expiration: Why should media be like milk?

star-trek-blu-ray-jj-abramsWhile this is not specifically about e-books, it is about an experience in transitioning from physical to digital media, and it should provide a lesson to all fields that are taking these steps—including books to e-books.

A number of movies, especially titles from Paramount or Disney (such as Pixar’s Wall•E), have been coming with an “extra third disc” lately, containing a DRM-girt digital copy which can be transferred either to iTunes or Windows Media Player. This saves the buyer the trouble of ripping the thing, and lets the studio charge a little extra and feel they can keep some modicum of DRM control over the final product.

Yesterday I received a friend’s Christmas gift—the Blu-Ray 3-disc version of the Abrams Star Trek movie, from my Amazon wish list. (I don’t have a Blu-Ray player yet, but I believe in future-proofing.) On the back of the box, in the fine print, I noticed the following:

The enclosed code that permits “authorization” (i.e., transfer of digital copy from DVD-ROM to your computer) is not valid after November 17, 2010. Authorization is not possible outside of the U.S. No refunds if authorization is unsuccessful or unavailable.

Needless to say, I was curious whether my digital copy would, in fact, work, so I did a little googling. I found an Amazon discussion of the expiration date, in which a number of people complained, and one person posted the responses he’d gotten from Paramount. At first he just got a brush-off: “Thank you for your interest in Paramount Digital Copy, but unfortunately that feature offering is no longer available for Star Trek.”

But later, he received another e-mail:

Thank you for your interest in "Star Trek" and Digital Copy. Due to popular demand, we are extending the redemption period for the Digital Copy offering on this title. Please try your Digital Copy disc again as you should now be able to redeem your digital copy of "Star Trek." In the future, please check the Digital Copy expiration date noted on the back of DVD and Blu-ray boxes prior to purchase to ensure that you may redeem the Digital Copy within the specified availability period.

And so when I put the DVD-ROM in my drive, entered the access code, and told it to copy, it went right to my iTunes with no hassle. So now it’s safely on my drive and I don’t need to worry about expiration dates.

But what on earth (or what in “Space…the final frontier”) was Paramount thinking? It is well past November 17th, a year after the movie’s original home video release (was it really that long ago?) and it’s still selling quite well: on Amazon, the 2-disc DVD is ranked #8,285 and the 3-disc Blu-Ray is #273 in Movies & TV. This is a title that will probably be a top-seller for at least a couple more years—especially if a sequel comes out to bump interest in the franchise.

And Paramount was going to invalidate 1/3 of the content of this package, or 1/2 the content of the DVD package, while they were still selling it? So people who bought the extra-disc editions would be paying extra for, essentially, a coaster? And they seriously thought it would be a good idea to try at first to get away with, “Unfortunately, that feature offering is no longer available”?

And even when they capitulated, they tacked on that passive-aggressive bit saying, “Next time, check the back of the box first, you idiot, because we can’t be bothered to make sure we’re actually selling you a still-valid product.” Imagine how it would be if you could still find months-expired milk in your grocer’s dairy case, and it was your responsibility to make sure you weren’t buying sour milk!

Do they think this is going to endear them to the people who pay good money for their movies? Do they think this is going to win the hearts and minds of people who are engaging in the digital piracy they’re trying to stop? Are they trying to get people to stop buying their movies?

And what’s the point of restricting the availability window of the digital copy, anyway? I can’t think of any piracy exploits that hinge on someone being able to download the copy of the movie they paid for thirteen months later rather than twelve. It’s not as if they have to worry about keeping authentication servers running longer than necessary, because it’s Apple and Microsoft that are running the servers!

Of course, those people who bought the DVD edition would be able to rectify the lack pretty easily using a program like Handbrake, producing a movie that could be played just as easily on their mobile devices and would not have the obnoxious restrictions of the DRM-locked version. (Not sure if it’s possible to do this for Blu-Ray yet.) True, it violates the DMCA, but if they do it in the privacy of their own home, who is going to know?

And for those who lack the ability to rip but are willing to take the risk of the MPAA ascertaining their IP address, high-definition rips are only a Google away. And studios continuing to try to pull this kind of nonsense is going to drive more and more consumers to that very extremity. If the majority of the population is breaking the law, can it really be enforced anymore?

The lesson for e-book publishers is simple. Given that this sort of bundling has been coming under discussion more and more in the last few months, if it ever does come to fruition publishers should know better than to try to pull this kind of stunt. If you’re going to bundle a code for a free e-book copy with a print book (and charge a little extra for the deal, as with these DVDs), you’d darned well better honor that code for as long as you’re publishing that edition of the book.

Digital movie downloads and e-books aren’t milk. There’s no earthly reason they should have a sell-by date.

About Chris Meadows (4151 Articles)
TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us--except for a brief interruption--since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books--and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.

8 Comments on Star Trek digital download expiration: Why should media be like milk?

  1. I think the limit might have something to do with contractual obligations (e.g. maybe they need to pay extra royalties for the digital copy) rather than any desire to limit copying.

  2. How does ripping a back up copy of your own DVD violate the DMCA? You aren’t circumventing DRM.

  3. @Lugman – When ripping a back up copy of your own DVD you’re almost certainly circumventing the DRM on the disc (CSS). In fact the horrible thought that consumers might want to get around CSS was one of the main reasons the content-distribution industry bought themselves enough Congressmen to push through the DMCA in the first place.

  4. What this experience of Chris’ demonstrates to me, if anything, is the astoundingly pompous and arrogant attitude the Film, and by extension, the Music and Publishing Industry has about Copyright and the Public.
    It also demonstrates to me the inevitability and very existence of the engines that drive piracy on the web.
    Firstly when I read here about this new policy of a third disk, something I was not aware of previously, I laughed out loud. I find it utterly comical. Who do these people think they are dealing with ? I can only imagine that they look out from the 88th floor of their skyscrapers and see ordinary people as some kind of ‘Stepford’ population, waiting for instructions on when they can wake up in the morning, when they can start dinner, when they can pick their nose and when they can go to sleep. And now they have their third disk so they can rest assured they don’t need to copy their film. Problem solved. (of course I may be easily amused … but I am still smiling incredulously at this)

    What they do not appear to be able to grasp is that the vast majority of people have an inbuilt sense of what is fair and not fair; what is common sense and reasonable and what is not. In my own experience they also have a belief that this ‘sense’ is far more important than what ANY stupid Copyright Law says or does not say. Copyright Law has been brought into such disrepute by the Film and Music Industry in the last 10 years, particularly in their appalling legal bullying and DRM restrictions, that respect for Copyright among ordinary people is almost non existent beyond the basic acceptance that copying and selling is still wrong.
    Who is really influenced by this third copy ? I would suggest that the only people affected are those who would never have made another copy for security anyway. I wonder therefore what the purpose of the whole exercise is ? Surely they don’t think that this third copy will in any way influence those who regularly make a security copy … and sometimes (shock horror) lend it to their brother or son or father to watch ??
    Where I learned to download pirated films first, several years ago now, was when a good friend of mine lost his DVD of a favourite film of his. He asked me about the dilemma and we discussed it. I told him that he had paid for the film and had a right to have it. So, after a couple of coffees we both sat down and started to research how to ‘acquire’ a copy. By the next day we had downloaded a pirated copy of the film and he was ecstatic. I was also delighted. He had what he paid for and that was all he or I cared about. Since then I have done the same for innumerable friends, as well as myself when I cracked my original disk of ‘Pyscho’ the movie. I have no doubt that a lot of downloads from pirate sites are represented by this kind of activity and I think it is an excellent resource to be able to replace damaged movies this way.
    Is there any lesson in this for the Publishing Industry ? I regret to say that I believe they are way way beyond learning any lessons and that they are doomed to fuel the pirate web by repeating all of the same inane stupidity of their predecessors. After all they have had years to learn. Yet we still have to endure their irritating DRM policy and Geographical restrictions policy. Is it any wonder that pirate sites have expanded.
    Copyright Law is being mis-used and abused to such an extent by these industries that I am convinced the wider public will continue their fast diminishing respect for ANY copyright, and the damage to earnings by writers and music writers and film makers will eventually start to match the wholly false claims that they have been bleating about incessantly for the last 10 years. They will start to reap what they sewed and I will still have no sympathy for them whatsoever.

  5. If the Handbrake or the plug-ins distributed to read DVDs on Ubuntu (and other Linux distros) are illegal under the DMCA, why are they still allowed to be distributed? Wouldn’t the content-mafia sue the creators and distributors into oblivion?

  6. igor: So that would mean that after the year was up, the studio could keep right on taking in the extra money for the digital copy disc without actually having to pay royalties on it, since they’re no longer providing the copies? Wow, that’s even worse.

    Luqman: The fact that Handbrake’s site (and presumably at least some of its coders) is located in France may have something to do with it.

    And we’ve seen how well that sort of thing has worked for shutting down Pirate Bay and WikiLeaks.

  7. “And so when I put the DVD-ROM in my drive, entered the access code, and told it to copy, it went right to my iTunes with no hassle. So now it’s safely on my drive and I don’t need to worry about expiration dates.”
    Until iTunes deletes it for you at Paramount’s request. The digital copy could expire too. Some forms of Microsoft DRM included expiry dates.

    Does anyone have a digital copy in iTunes(or Windows) that’s a year or three past the expiration date? (like the code expired in 2008 or 2009) Is iTunes copy still playable?

  8. @Lugman: “If the Handbrake or the plug-ins distributed to read DVDs on Ubuntu (and other Linux distros) are illegal under the DMCA, why are they still allowed to be distributed? Wouldn’t the content-mafia sue the creators and distributors into oblivion?”

    They tried and failed – see for a pocket summary.

    Further, as already pointed out, the code (and executables) are generally hosted on sites in countries in the free world, so US law doesn’t apply; if you download the software and use it in the US, you’re almost certainly committing a crime (although the odds of punishment are probably nil, since if the MAFIAA went after somebody for playing a legitimately-purchased DVD on their Linux box they’d likely lose in court, opening the door to challenges to some of the other draconian provisions of the DMCA, which is the last thing they want to see happen).

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