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The Lasting Legacy of the DIVX Disc

By Will Smith

Or: How we learned to stop worrying and love DRM.

Do you remember the DIVX disc? DIVX, not to be confused with the video codec DivX, was a movie rental scheme that Circuit City and some law firm cooked up to try and disrupt the video rental market five years before Netflix existed.

For $4 or $5, you could buy a movie on a DIVX disc at Circuit City, Good Guys, Futureshop, or another retailer, then take it home to watch it in a special DIVX player. The player would connect to the Internet using a dial-up phone line and authorize your player to watch that movie for a short period of time. You could watch the movie as many times as you wanted during that window, but once your time was up, you'd have to "rent" the movie again for a few more bucks.

Photo credit: Flickr user weirdo513 via Creative Commons, from PAX East 2011.

Sound familiar?

DIVX ultimately failed, likely because of the upfront cost and quality issues with the actual films. To play the discs, you had to buy a player that cost $100-150 more than a DVD-only player, and you had to run a dedicated phone line to the box. Most DIVX versions of movies were lower quality than their DVD counterparts. The DIVX discs usually contained cropped pan-and-scan version of the film, rather than the anamorphic widescreen that was becoming common on DVDs. The discs also lacked extra features--they didn't contain making-of documentaries, deleted scenes, or audio commentaries.

People also had privacy and ecological concerns with the format. We feared that the DIVX player would spy on their behavior, uploading their disc viewing activities during its regular calls into the DIVX mothership. There were also concerns about the wastefulness of a disc-based format designed for single viewing. After the rental period expired, the discs were essentially worthless, and people were concerned that if DIVX succeeded, our landfills would end up filled with one-use plastic discs with copies of Speed 2: Cruise Control and Enemy of the State.

Photo courtesy eBay user imodify.

So if DIVX was such a bad idea, why am I talking about it today? It started with this Twitter post, from Dave Pell. Dave, who is responsible for the excellent Next Draft newsletter, is one of many people who have complained about the hidden catch of the 24-hour time limit. His complaint is that when he starts watching a film on a weeknight evening, if he doesn't finish it during that sitting, he won't have a chance to come back to it until the 24-hour rental period has expired. Unless he pays another $6, he'll never see the nail-biting conclusion to The Adjustment Bureau. I wanted to find the origin of the 24-hour rental window, as it exists on iTunes, Amazon's Instant Video, the Google Play store, Microsoft's Xbox Video, and pretty much every other on-demand video rental service I've seen*.

All of the major online video rental stores today have less favorable terms than DIVX did when it failed because it wasn't "consumer friendly"

After digging a bit, the first service I've been able to find that had a similar, DRM-imposed time limit was... you guessed it... DIVX. Ironically, the DIVX format didn't have the 24-hour problem because DIVX actually gave you 48 hours to complete your movie after you first started watching it.

That's right. All of the major online video rental stores today have less favorable terms than DIVX did when it failed because it wasn't "consumer friendly". The online stores limit you to a 24-hour viewing window, their Terms of Service explicitly state that they're going to track your viewing habits (albeit in a way that doesn't directly identify you). And, rentals still don't include the bonus features that are available on most DVD and Blu-ray releases. In fairness, most rentals I've tried do display in the proper aspect ratio, although they all charge a buck or two more for HD resolutions. While the iTunes store hasn't resulted in millions of discs ending up in the landfill, we aren't sure what the environmental impact of all these server farms is.

It's only a matter of time before some scrappy upstart rolls out a service that offers rentals with friendlier terms, you know, like Blockbuster's three-day rental window.

* Except in Europe and Australia, where the iTunes rental window is 48-hours.