Europe looks to be the bellwether in digital entertainment once again. Both Universal Picture and Warner Brothers have announced plans to make major movies available for download at the same time as the DVD version is released for retail sales. The studios hope that this approach will help stem the tide of piracy, just as pay-for-download services such as iTunes have transformed the music industry.
Unlike other services that only let you “rent” a downloaded movie, you get to “own” these downloaded versions. This means that you can watch them again and again, whenever you want. “Digital rights management technology” — better known as “copy protection” — will prevent buyers from distributing copies of the movies that they purchase.
Digital distribution has some important advantages (which is why I distribute Professor Poor’s Guide to Buying HDTV electronically). Manufacturers do not have to maintain expensive physical inventories, and customers get nearly instantaneous delivery without relying on postal or shipping services. The European market has some important differences from the United States, but these experiments will be important to watch as they may point the way toward movie distribution for U.S. consumers before long.