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.