Unbox: High Prices, Restrictive Terms

Kirk’s debunking of the Amazon myths briefly discussed the prices and restrictions being imposed on consumers who use this service. Simply put, it ain’t good for the customer.

Which, I suppose, will ultimately be bad for the studios.

Amazon has perversely chosen to ignore consumers wants and needs in an effort to bow to studio concerns about piracy. The result is prices that reflect the last century — apropos, as it was pointed out that the suggested technology for linking to your television gives you a picture straight out of 1995.

If you browse the selection at Unbox, you will note that pricing roughly equates what you will spend on physical media: you have your bargain-basement prices (Jagged Edge at $9.99) and your premium prices (The Blob at $35.99 — that is not a typo). If you head for your nearest Best Buy, you’ll probably pay about the same for these titles, depending on the store, timing, etc.

These are what are called “sell-through” prices. There are two models in the video world. The first is the rental model — basically, you pay to have access to the video (and, by video, I mean any format known to humankind) for a set period of time. Amazon has videos for rent, by the way. Your right to access the motion pictures expires after a set period of time. Frees up hard disk space, I suppose.

The second model is the sell-through model: the direct-to-consumer model. This is the model that has sustained the industry for years. Essentially, the consumer owns the media (but not the intellectual property). You can, after paying your fifteen bucks or whatever you’ve chosen to plunk down, watch the movie as often as you’d like, loan it to friends, give it to the Salvation Army, or, horrors!, sell it on eBay to finance something you want even more.

And because you can sell this item for pennies on the dollar, someone else can purchase it from you. This doctrine of first sale has been well-established law up until now — it’s how used record and book stores can exist in the first place. Amazon and services like it (as Kirk noted, Unbox is not the first, nor will it be the last) have essentially eliminated the basic rights of consumers to use media how they, the consumers see fit. That would be great if prices reflected the fact that this is just a rental, not a purchase.

Unbox doesn’t offer anything special to the consumer except the ability to watch a movie on a computer or, uh, other pre-approved portable device (like Kirk, I’m not seeing much eagerness for watching full-length films on most mobile devices). Let’s be honest: I can pop a DVD into my laptop right now and watch it. Likewise, I can put the same DVD in my DVD player attached to my television and watch it. I can carry that DVD across the street and put it in my neighbor’s DVD player and we can have a neighborly film festival.

Even scarier than the pricing is the fact that when you purchase a movie, you are also agreeing to allow Amazon to automatically install software updates on your computer — otherwise, your access to your legally purchased media is cut off. Since this service is only really available to Windows users, it’s probably just a matter of time before a patch wreaks havoc on someone’s machine and lawsuits follow.

Consumers should know that the Unbox software will be spying on you. Amazon will receive reports on what you watch, how often, when, and, probably, what you’re drinking at the time (no, not really). And, of course, should you uninstall the player, you lose access to the content you’ve purchased. Here’s hoping that Amazon’s software development process is absolute aces because any Windows user knows that uninstalls are inevitable.

Given Amazon’s position in the market, Unbox should have been a killer app. And maybe it is…for the entertainment industry. The service seems to be a manifestation of studio wishlists. Maybe next time, Amazon should ask consumer what they

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