If you’ve popped down the shops and bought a Blu-ray or DVD movie recently you’ll have noticed that many of the discs you can buy now sport something called UltraViolet Digital Copy — a free version of the movie that enables you to watch it on your Mac, iPad or iPhone without falling foul of the copyright police.

UltraViolet Digital Copy is actually Hollywood’s preferred alternative to the iTunes Digital Copy that Apple announced alongside 20th Century Fox at the Macworld Expo in January 2008. The catch is that the two don’t play nicely together.

For a while after Apple made its Macworld announcement the major Hollywood studios seemed happy to play along — 20th Century Fox was soon joined by other movie makers and iTunes Digital Copy’s future seemed assured. After all, given that iTunes is the world’s most popular media player and millions of people use iPhones, iPads, Macs and PCs every day, iTunes Digital Copy seemed like an obvious solution — a solution that gave some legitimacy to the notion of fair use and format shifting without the need to rip legally dubious copies of your favourite films. Or download them illegally from file sharing sites and the like.

Clearly, Hollywood didn’t like Apple having all the answers, and so in September 2010 it announced its own alternative in UltraViolet, with most of the major Hollywood Studios — save Disney — rapidly clambering on board. Disney stuck with iTunes Digital Copy until last May last year when it announced Digital Copy Plus — giving you a cross-platform alternative UltraViolet, which simply offers a redemption code for your favourite media player: iTunes, Amazon Instant or Vudu. Provided you lived in the USA.

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Today, iTunes Digital Copy is barely visible among the racks of movie discs you’ll find in stores or online, which suggests that Hollywood has won. As of January, there were over 12,000 titles available on UltraViolet. Disney has again broken ranks with most of Hollywood by announcing the Disney Movies Anywhere website. It gives you the ability to stream movies on iTunes using Digital Copy Plus — but again currently only works in the USA. The maker of “Frozen” and owner of Pixar has adopted a wait-and-see approach to UltraViolet.

So we’ve gone from a simple system for everyone to an utter mess in six years. Thanks Hollywood.

Where does this leave us?

At the moment you have three main choices:

  1. Stop buying Blu-ray or DVD movies and buy or rent them on iTunes instead.
  2. Buy Blu-rays or DVDs with UltraViolet and then use a different solution for Disney films.
  3. Rip movies yourself or use (cough) alternative means. You can choose which.

One bright spark on the horizon for UK users at least is that the government is including in a ‘fair use’ clause in its digital copyright bill, which comes into effect this month. This gives you the legal right to make backups or ‘place-shift’ movies as well as you own for enjoyment on other digital devices, similar to laws in the USA and other places. That’s still going to mean a lot of faffing around for a lot of people — ripping a DVD movie is fairly straightforward using applications like Handbrake and an external DVD drive if your Mac doesn’t have one. For Blu-ray movies, you need an external Blu-ray drive that’s capable of playing Blu-ray movies (not all of them are), plus Aurora Software’s free Blu-ray Copy app for Mac to copy it on storage drive and then a video ripper such as Handbrake to create a copy you can watch on your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch. Sheesh.

So, UltraViolet it is then…

How to redeem and share a movie using UltraViolet

The first thing you need to do is create an UltraViolet account. You can do this by heading to the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) website and then signing up. Or you can create an UltraViolet account within the Flixster app for Mac, iPad or iPhone — Flixster is the only app on Mac and iOS devices that enables you to watch UltraViolet movies. iTunes won’t work.

Next create a Flixster account if you don’t have one already. You can do that from the Flixster website.

Alternatively you can simply head here and choose the movie you want to add.

Enter the redemption code that came with your movie. This can be found on an UltraViolet branded sheet inside the DVD or Blu-ray box. If you opt for method three, you’ll still need to create both UltraViolet and Flixster accounts as well.

Once you’ve redeemed your movie, it should now be added to your UltraViolet library within the Flixster app. You can choose to simply stream the movie or download it. Watch out though: some Hollywood movies claim to offer a Digital HD version of the movie on UltraViolet, but only give you the ability to watch or stream the SD (standard definition) version — this happened to us with Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters — so don’t be surprised if that’s what you get. You might also prefer to download the movie via Wi-Fi as streaming it will rapidly consume any mobile data allowance on your iPhone or iPad you have.

On the positive side, UltraViolet theoretically enables you download your UltraViolet movie on up to 12 other devices, stream it to three different devices at the same time or share it with up six other members of your family or household.

To share your UltraViolet Library, you’ll need to create individual accounts for each person on the UltraViolet website, then create a shared library they can gain access to. No-one said it was going to be easy…

One more thing…

Unfortunately UltraViolet has a lot more problems than not being compatible with iTunes. There’s the multi-step sign up process for starters, the misinformation from individual studios about whether you’re really getting a proper Digital HD download and the need to use different apps from the ones such as iTunes that people used most often.

There’s also a conspicuous lack of proper customer service. There is no central UltraViolet customer number for you to call. And if you have an issue your only recourse is to either send an email (which may or may not be answered in a timely fashion) via the UltraViolet or Flixster websites or try to complain to the Home Entertainment division of the movie company you bought the DVD or Blu-ray with UltraViolet Digital Copy from.

Here’s one example: we had an issue with Flixster / UltraViolet stopping us from downloading a legit copy of Despicable Me 2 because we’d apparently “exceeded the number of devices” we could download it too, when it was plainly not the case. We’re still waiting for a satisfactory answer.

Apple and iTunes, by contrast, makes it relatively easy to see the number and identity of authorised devices you own and gives you the ability to deauthorise those you no longer want to have associated with your iTunes ID. And Apple’s iTunes customer service people will even try to get any issues sorted for you within reason— often over the phone. Apple’s even been known to offer some of its customers free upgrades from SD to HD versions of movies bought through iTunes Digital Copy unprompted. Now that’s customer service.

Hollywood may be trying to bludgeon legitimate movie buyers into accepting UtraViolet as the de facto alternative to iTunes Digital Copy. But it’s going to have to try a lot harder to win our hearts and minds if it’s not to suffer the same fate as the once bullet-proof music industry.