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Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Digital Rights Model must change, at least on iTunes

Ever try to rent a movie on iTunes. Strap in, because if you haven't, you're in for a world of frustration. I thought they had already fixed this in 2014.

I recently had the hankering to watch a movie on iTunes.

I don't do that too much. I once had Hulu+ and Netflix streaming, and so spending a few dollars for a movie seemed a waste when faced with the thousands of hours of visual content available to me. Granted, not all of it is anything I want to see, but it was enough. But almost 6 months ago I cancelled those services, and I finally decided I could treat myself to a movie online that hadn't been out of the theatres more than a year.

Alright, I went to iTunes on my Mac, looked at what was available. The selection was pretty great, with many Oscar nominees available, but I was looking for something heartfelt with some humor, and so landed on "Saving Mr. Banks." My film selection probably doesn't matter, except that I knew I didn't want to spend $20 to "own" it (who knows what owning even means these days with digital downloads and licensing contracts), renting ended up being a perfect choice.

I already have an iTunes account, so making the purchase was pretty quick, slowed only by two reminders that I would only have 24 hours to view my rental after I first started to watch it. I guess a lot of folks don't understand that or click the wrong button, but I have little complaint when a company wants to make sure I understand what I've gotten myself into.

The file downloaded and I got ready to sit back and watch from my couch. I have a decent iMac, and attached is a larger external monitor through the miniDVI connector. I dragged the iTunes window to the second monitor, the one opposite my favorite movie and TV watching seat, where I would be most comfortable viewing a 2+ hour long film. As I did, I was greeted with this lovely message:

Now, I'd heard about this sort of thing happening with HDMI and Blu-ray, and video games and such, but frankly, I'd never experienced it before. I was further surprised when I realized that my second monitor was connected through miniDVI to DVI to VGA on my monitor. Seemed unlikely that I would have any trouble. Keep in mind that I have regularly watched and Netflix with the same setup.

You may ask, "well, why not watch on your iMac monitor?" My answer is first, why should I have to? More importantly, the iMac monitor is much smaller, and at the distance it is from my couch, is somewhat a useless exercise in TV viewing. And also, why should I have to?

Some of you will surely counter that it's all about copy-protection and so forth. Really? That's the excuse? I'll tell you, if I want to copy a movie, I'll copy it. There are oh so many ways to do so inexpensively. Thing is, though, I'm not going to do that, I just want to watch on my external monitor.

Undaunted, I tried other combinations. Tried mirroring the video. No dice. Then, I tried using my iPad 2. I've synced it multiple times with my iMac. But no, I couldn't, because (I assume due to the video being HD) the system required that I update my iTunes to watch a video I could readily view on my iMac. And that required that I update my Mac OS and restart. I was not about to potentially make every other piece of software that was working perfectly well just to watch a rental video I chose on a whim. Keep in mind, I transfer my own HD videos all of the time from this iTunes to this iPad. What confused me most about that was that it was the only way, it seemed, for me to access the content on the iPad. Because, you see, when I went to iTunes on the iPad, it didn't seem to know that I had rented the movie. That's right. Despite the fact that I had paid for the privilege, Apple won't let my iPad know that I have made the purchase, although it was happy to let me make that purchase again.

"Again," I hear you say, "maybe if you just bought the rental, it would know then that you already had it?" I wasn't going to risk being double charged.

I also happen to have an Apple TV (2nd gen, I think). I had, actually, been planning to send the signal from the iPad to the Apple TV via Airplay. That was right out, but then I realized: I could use Airplay Mirroring to make the video show on that box. I went down the rabbit hole of setting that up, it only took a couple of minutes, and voila! Nope.

Instead, while I could hear the sound, I obtained this lovely grid:

No message or warnings this time, but for the next ten minutes of debugging, I got nothing more.

Keep in mind, it's now been over 30 minutes since I decided I'd like to watch a movie.

Certainly, there must be a way to watch the movie directly on my Apple TV. I wasn't optimistic, after my iPad experience, and I was right not to be. First, when I went to look at my previously purchased items, I got a "couldn't connect to server" error. So frustrating! After rebooting the unit, though, things came back with one other movie I had purchased, but no rentals. And of course, I could still re-buy the movie if I wanted to. How sweet.

I find it incomprehensible that, due to what is likely a contractual limitation, I can't simply watch a movie I rented on any of these units with which I have an account.

An Internet search (now it's been nearly an hour since I started with a hankering, that was quickly fading, to watch a movie) revealed that there was something called "Home Sharing" that would allow me to watch anything downloaded to my computer on my Apple TV. Hallelujah! The search told me where to look for this magical setting, but it wasn't where they said it would be. I did find a "Sharing" tab in the iTunes preferences, and in that tab was checked "allow Home Sharing." Fantastic.

I now went back to the Apple TV. I went to the Computer icon in the menu. But instead of my rented film greeting me, there was a message telling me I had to turn on Home Sharing for my iTunes account! "I have already done that!" I thought. No, let's be honest; I yelled. And so now I was back to looking at every step I took, debugging a thing that should have taken 5 minutes, now dragging into 90.

I looked back at iTunes. Looked at Apple TV. Even tried the other failed techniques again, thinking maybe I missed something. More Internet searching. Frustrated, I ended up back at iTunes, resigning myself to the lot of sitting in my office chair for 120 minutes to watch a film I intended to sit back on my couch and enjoy.

I still don't know how I got there. But while trying to find the film after having quit out of iTunes, there it was in front of me: a request to turn on Home Sharing. I still don't know why that was different from the check box that allowed Home Sharing. I did have to enter a password, so that was different. Back to my Apple TV and lo and behold, there was my computer, happily waiting to allow me to view my rented movie on a proper screen. And it had only taken two hours to do.

I understand that it is difficult to obtain rights for movies. I know it's challenging to make them available on demand over the Internet over WiFi, compressing them in such a way as to satisfy all of the middlemen and legitimate rights holders who want the money to pay for their film so they can make them in the future. I get all of that, and I get that these are first world complaints.

Still, in the context of Pop Culture, it would seem that if you really want to sell content to distract people from their every day woes, the last thing you want to do is make them spend two hours just to start watching. Television and films shouldn't require that much homework.

Here's hoping that Apple and the content industry eventually get their acts together. Although if they don't, I guess I know what my next post will be about.

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