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Legally Downloadable Movies Come With Heavy Restrictions

Two different coalitions of Hollywood movie studios are introducing legal movie downloads from the Web this month, but the ventures are already being met with stinging criticism for the high cost and heavy restrictions on usage.

A number of major studios, including Warner Brothers, Fox, Universal, and Paramount, will be selling new movie releases through the Movielink Web site. Sony, in addition to participating in the Movielink project, is also partnering with Lions Gate Films to sell movies for download at CinemaNow.

Prices for the Movielink catalog start at $10 for classic movies, while ranging between $20 and $30 for new films. CinemaNow offers rentals for new films starting at $3.99, and older films for $2.99, while purchasing movies permanently will cost buyers between $9.95 and $19.95.

Film lovers are already howling at the prices, which are quite a bit more than the cost of purchasing a regular DVD both from stores and online retailers such as Amazon.com, particularly given that the downloaded films won't include any extras, such as deleted scenes or "Making of" features.

But the prices aren't the only concern. The movies from both offerings will have heavy Digital Rights Management (DRM) software embedded into them to prevent piracy.

The downloaded movies can't be copied to blank DVD's for future use, nor can they be transferred to portable devices such as the iPod. Films from Movielink and CinemaNow will only be playable on special DVD players or the computers they were downloaded to, due to the copy restrictions.

Movielink allows a copy of its downloads to be moved to two other PCs, and users can view them on their televisions if -- and only if -- they have a Windows Media Center PC that's hooked up to the TV set.

Not only that, but both Web sites require the usage of Windows XP and Internet Explorer to download and use the files, making them nearly inaccessible to Apple users, or fans of alternative Web browsers such as Firefox and Opera.

The high pricing and content restrictions were met with derision from observers after the April 3 announcement.

One commenter on the Engadget technology blog said "At $20 to $30 a pop, no copy capability and limitations from hell, this thing is DOA! That's until the hackers find the work around, publish it on the Web and the studios shut it down all together."

The Content Wars

The major movie studios have been targeting piracy with greater fervor in recent years, ever since the Motion Picture Association of America announced it would file lawsuits against people who download movies from file-sharing services in 2004.

It stood to reason that the motion picture industry would start offering downloadable movies for purchase from their own ventures as a reasonable alternative.

Movies have been available for rental via download from Movielink for several years, but the service didn't attract much attention, as its offerings were already available at video stores and for sale for months prior.

Movie studios have also been engaged in tense negotiations with Apple over pricing and rights for movies, particularly since the company has been pushing for its own subscription-based movie service to complement the movie-compatible video iPod it plans to launch later this year.

Where Apple CEO Steve Jobs has insisted on prices for movie downloads to be in range with the cost of downloading songs for the iTunes music player -- starting at 99 cents a pop -- the movie industry is considerably more enamored of a plan that enables them to make larger profits with minimal cost.

Many studio executives are even admitting openly that the Movielink and CinemaNow services are "trial balloons," testing consumer demand to see if they will support the price models for downloadable movie purchases.

Curt Marvis, CinemaNow's CEO, told the Los Angeles Times that the new plan was a "first step" for studios into the realm of digital downloads. Many movie companies are taking a "wait and see" approach to offering for-pay downloads that can be copied onto blank DVD's, especially with the brewing battle between the new Hi-Definition (HD) DVD and Blu-Ray DVD formats.

More cynical observers think that the MovieLink and CinemaNow offerings are so restrictive in order to scare consumers away from the idea of buying movies via download altogether.

Said one commenter at the Ars Technica Web site, "Maybe the industry is trying to gather "evidence" that online distribution doesn't work by launching services no customer in their right mind would use, then presenting the fact that no customers are using them as a lack of demand in general."

There's no question that movie studios, like recording labels, should have the right to earn profit off the sales of content they own. Movie lovers are also willing to accept content restrictions on their films, as long as they aren't damaging to their machines or excessively costly.

But when the Web sales model is not only inferior to other forms of content delivery, such as file-sharing, but costs as much or more than buying a physical DVD, one has to wonder if the movie studios involved with MovieLink and CinemaNow are setting themselves up for a deliberate fall.

Otherwise, if consumer distaste for the plans are any indication, downloadable movie sales from Movielink and CinemaNow will make the grosses for Sharon Stone's recent mega-flop "Basic Instinct 2" look like a box office blockbuster.

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