The Promise and Perils of
UltraViolet© Technology

Michael Johnson Jr., PhD (bio)
Washington State University


This research critically investigates the UltraViolet© technology and argues that this technology offers consumers a form of conspicuous consumption that endorses a culturally important type of commodity fetishism. Unlike P2P exchange of files, or locally streaming content, or even DVD ownership, UltraViolet™ technology attempts to emulate the successes of all three areas of media use without drawing attention to the socioeconomic consequences that adoption of its model endorses. It demands that consumers participate in an economic exchange of capital that requires (1) the purchase of legally “sanctioned media”; (2) pay for its licensure validation process to confirm one’s ownership rights and also (3) purchase access to the very content that consumers already own. UltraViolet™ accomplishes this under a marketing rhetoric of liberating users from the constraints of physical media like Blu-Ray discs by espousing the portability and utility of an all-digital, streaming model of viewer consumption. To evaluate these claims, this research pursues a political economic analysis of this technology that examines these exchanges of capital and the emerging consumption model with its attendant cultural costs for contemporary consumers of digital entertainment.


A substantial body of research has been conducted and published about the proliferation of digitized TV and film content circulating throughout the media industry during the post-network era. Some scholars argue that this evolution presages new and revolutionary ways of viewing and consuming these media commodities (Kompare, 2006; Newman, 2012; Vaidhyanathan, 2001; Dixon, 2013; Rifkin, 2001). At least one researcher has argued that these technological evolutions presents some problems that challenge our collectively held, and traditionally understood notions of what constitutes “ownership” in an increasingly digitized world (Striphas, 2006). And Alisa Perren argues that “notwithstanding the industry’s rhetoric about the decline of physical media…distribution practices have substantive material consequences” (2013, p. 170). The rise of subscription based models of streaming media (e.g. Netflix and digital libraries (like iTunes, Amazon Instant Video etc.) combined with increasing consumer experimentation with and reliability of cloud-based storage, has resulted in Hollywood studios rapidly losing their traditional, primary sources of revenue. Thus this technological evolution has rendered the evolving collection of digital content significantly more important to consumers, content producers (like Hollywood) and society at large. The popularity of the internet as a method of digital delivery has been well established in the literature as appealing to a wide array of consumer demographics – especially amongst younger aged consumers (Matthews & Schrum, 2003).

The conspicuous consumption practices of culturally “elite” consumers[1] for whom the collection of digital media is central, becomes particularly important for future analyses of commodity fetishism to the larger systems of economic and cultural production in the United States. The rapidly changing technological advancements like UltraViolet, which are created to encourage and regulate consumer enthusiast’s purchase and collection of digital goods must be analyzed with an explicit attention to the sociocultural circumstances of their consumption. And such analyses should equally attend to the economic profitability models that are associated with the accumulation of these digital goods. As James Kendrick points out, these consumers have historically taken full advantage of the developments of technologies like UltraViolet “to assert control over their media consumption” in ways that resonate with them personally (2005, p. 59).       Thus, it is the intention of this research to analyze the ways in which UltraViolet technology functions with attention to the promises that it makes to consumers and the many pitfalls that accompany its implementation. To that end, I argue that this technology offers consumers a form of conspicuous consumption that endorses a culturally important type of commodity fetishism that obfuscates the socioeconomic consequences of its adoption. To accomplish this analysis, I look to the marketing rhetoric of portability, liberation, durability, permanency and interoperability that its creators communicate to enthusiasts of digital consumer goods.


For the purposes of this research I adopt Jonathan Gray’s argument of interpreting popular telenarratives and film as “entertainment” commodities, given the ways in which UltraViolettechnology is both branded by its creators and marketed to consumers(2010). I employ a mixed methodology that uses both textual and political economic analysis. The use of textual analysis focused on discursive forces present in a text is an important means of understanding how individuals and society constitute themselves and make sense of the larger world in which they live. Textual analysis can usefully interrogate how mass mediated commodities create identities and "construct authoritative truths" (Saukko, 2003) for those who use (or are represented as using) them, thereby illuminating the participatory (or non-participatory) role social actors possess in the creation, reflection and consumption of those truths. The multiple interpretations of a given “text” frequently look different when examined in relation to other texts or social sensibilities, thus the task of analysis is not to ascertain the most correct but rather to explore some of the possible and undiscovered interpretations embedded in the targets of textual analysis. This proposition is especially applicable in the study of mass mediated commodities which engender strong feelings through images and sound that invite the reader to ‘feel and feel’ and thereby, feel in touch with the real(Saukko, 2003, p. 109).

This research examines a wide array of “texts” which include (1) printed and web literature promulgated and disseminated by the DECE consortium as well as (2) the larger constellation of entertainment commodities included and excluded by (3) UltraViolet technologies to date. To that end, I utilize textual analysis to examine the method by which these three category of “texts” gain social value over time, through their conspicuous consumption by social consumers. Necessary to that examination is an investigation that determines the degree to which viewers consume mass mediated commodities produced in a corporatized process of production that "technologically" and "commercially" constrains content through the regulatory imposition of UltraViolet model.

As T.V. Reed points out, “Whatever else popular culture may be, it is deeply embedded in capitalist, for-profit mass production" (2011). The strength  of textual analysis lies in its ability to expose the (1) discourses through which texts (construed broadly) communicate their message, (2) the sociopolitical contexts by which those messages are situated or mediated, and the (3) lived experiences these messages attempt to represent or replicate. While attempting to get to the "truth” of a particular target, textual analysis facilitates multiple, multidimensional, nuanced, and tentative ways of understanding while frequently employing deconstructive techniques which expose the "historicity, political investments, omissions and blind spots" (Saukko, 2003) of social truths which are understood as possessing their own continuously contested, but often tightly regulated possibilities.

This paper’s political economic analysis “examines how methods of distributing information and other resources give rise to or undermine different forms of… social relations (Steirer, 2014, p. 7). This research attempts to avoid what Kembrew McLeod says are “studies that employ a purely political economic analysis [that] do not examine cultural practices to any great extent” and through that omission fail to discern the ways in which cultural practices create “a whole new set of questions” (2001, p. 6). One of those questions that my mixed methodology attempts to answer is the ways in which consumer social relationships to digital commodities work in tandem with evolving conceptions of socioeconomic value.  And as Gregory Steirer notes, “The market for digital film and television, like all markets involving some degree of genuine competition, can and thus should be viewed as a social process – or if you will, a wide scale and perpetual conversation about value” (2014, p. 11).

What Is UltraViolet?

In 2011 the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem or DECE[2] launched UltraViolet, a new “digital media ecosystem” that sought to both standardize and vitalize the electronic sell through market for Hollywood products by offering consumers their ‘movies and television in the cloud’…since that time the technology “remains largely unknown to a substantial portion of its target consumers” (Steirer, 2014, p. 2). In January 2013, more than a full year after the launch, a promotional survey conducted by Sony Pictures in the US Found that slightly less than half of all home entertainment consumers were still unaware of the ecosystem (Steirer, 2014, p. 2).

Despite these problems of visibility and technological acceptance, the official UltraViolet website…defines it as a “free cloud-based digital rights collection” (UltraViolet 2013).Essentially, it is a type of “digital rights authentication and cloud based distribution system” that functions by authorizing and distributing electronic tokens obtained by consumers to “provide their owners with access rights to individual films or television episodes”. It is simultaneously a (1) DVD and Blu-Ray disc level DRM encryption technology, (2) a set of technological standards for device manufacturers and software app developers as well as (3) a web-based “library” portal where consumers can access digital versions of their entertainment content.

Figure 1. UltraViolet - Collect

Figure 2. UltraViolet - Watch

In much the same way that DVDs recaptured the enthusiasm of entertainment consumers in earlier years, contemporary entertainment consumer’s (especially digital millennials) interest in the accumulation of digital goods has given rise to an interest by industry to capture this emerging market. These digital enthusiasts are especially interested in the accumulation of large collections of electronic goods, and exhibit many of the characteristics that set them apart from consumers with less curatorial interest in their entertainment media. They possess a depth of knowledge that is coupled with particular class distinctions that unambiguously communicate discriminating tastes in both their digital entertainment commodities and their archival and technical acumen. UltraViolet is a technological “solution” to some issues that many of these discerning entertainment enthusiasts have expressed. Examples of this can easily be found in the many discussions about the utility (and flaws) of UltraViolet’s technological implementation on discussion board, wikis and other online forums that comprise some of this analysis. UltraViolet therefore is a form of technological adaptation to the decline of DVD and Blu-Ray Disc sales while trying to emulate the ascendency of Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and others streaming successes. =

According to Gregory Steirer, one of the largest obstacles to widespread technological innovation that UltraViolet attempts to accomplish is the both the failure of many companies to abandon the 20th century profit model (that centered on physical media) as much as it is the failure to adapt and “adjust to their business strategies to twenty-first century paradigms of consumption, which revolve around access, sharing/participation and experience” (2014, p. 7) Thus UltraViolet’s development was an appeal to the entertainment enthusiasts who still want access to their movies and television series, albeit free from the constraints of physical media. And UltraViolet explicitly targets these consumer enthusiasts who possess both the economic and cultural capital, to capitalize on the attractiveness of its marketing rhetoric.

Figure 3. UltraViolet - Share

UltraViolet has a structural model to which all its consumer-participants must adhere, and this model is both a set of regulatory rules as much as it is an economic model of profitability for its consortium creators.

The UltraViolet Usage Model

A household account can have up to 6 members

Each member has a unique username and password

Each account holds a collection of digital rights that represent content that it “owns”

Purchases belong to the account, regardless of which member made the purchase

Content can be downloaded after it's purchased (with limitations to frequency/location)

Streaming devices with the UltraViolet logo are licensed to play UltraViolet content

Streaming services with the UltraViolet logo are licensed to stream UltraViolet content

Each account can have up to 12 "devices" assigned to it (can be an app or a device)

Once a device is joined to an account it can play any content owned by that account

An account can have up to 3 streams playing at the same time

Unfulfilled Promises, Promises, Promises

The UltraViolet system makes a number of promises:  First it says that “By keeping a permanent record of your movie and TV show purchases, UltraViolet allows you to build a digital collection safely and securely” though such a digital collection comes with a cost. To build one’s digital collection, one must do one of two things: buy a legally recognized DVD or Blu-Ray disc through an authorized retailer or buy one’s movie or TV episode/Season digitally through a recognized online retailer.  If one chooses to do the former, one may have to go to Walmart to enter their purchase into the UV system to have their digital rights recorded to their UV library (unless their purchase comes with a redemption code included in the DVD/Blu-Ray case) – more on redemption codes later.  If one doesn’t buy a digital copy and a redemption code is missing, one must make a trip to Walmart. Walmart also functions as an intermediary between DECE and the consumer, by allowing consumers to provide physical copies of their DVD/Blu-Ray movies for scanning and verification for a fee. 

A Walmart technician submits the consumers physical media for scanning and matching to a larger database and (1) upon verification that the consumer’s media is a legitimate (i.e. not a pirated) copy, (2) and the film matches with a title for whom DECE has bought a license[4], the system will then transmit the rights token to the customer’s UltraViolet account, whereupon the technician will return the original DVD or Blu-Ray media to the customer. 

Once this process is completed, this verification and rights transmission scheme thereby enables the customer to stream their movie to a wide variety of devices from the cloud (provided that they login with their associated username and password combination on those devices) thereby freeing them from the use of their original DVD or Blu-Ray media. Steirer notes that the “purchasing and viewing of an UltraViolet film is a complicated process that would seem to bear little in common with the streamlined, one-stop consumer experiences provided by Apple, Netflix, and other leading digital video services” (2014, p. 5). UltraViolet emphasizes the “free” nature of the service, in that the Digital Library that one creates is ostensibly “free” since it costs nothing to create and maintain one’s library on one of the companion services (I use Vudu). Unfortunately this too is an illusion, as UltraViolet obfuscates much of the costs associated with its use behind the veneer of user liberation.

Unfortunately when pursuing the Walmart option of scanning and verification of a consumer’s physical media, consumer must pay a fee in order to achieve this liberation from the physicality of DVD and Blu-Ray discs. Thus there’s a cost to According to the most recent information from the VUDU site, the verification process costs “$2 per DVD to convert to Standard Definition (‘SD’) on VUDU and $5 per DVD to upgrade to High Definition('HDX) with Dolby Digital Plus Surround Sound (when available) on VUDU. To convert a Blu-Ray disc to HDX would cost $2. This can only be done in Walmart stores[5]. When one considers how many DVD and/or Blu-Ray discs one has in their home, the costs can quickly amount to a noticeable sum, especially in very large collections maintained by enthusiasts*. Unaccounted costs in terms of transportation, time and the inconvenience of carrying large numbers of physical discs (especially when some movie titles are not available because certain production studios do not currently participate) are never discussed in press accounts or official statements.

Second, UltraViolet makes the case that its technology is more economically friendly than other alternatives. Yet UltraViolet strategically omits some important information about other limitations, like the fact that the digital rights cannot be transferred*, meaning that if a consumer wanted to share their content with others, their options are limited to only 5 people, thereby necessitating their friends to follow through the same process of verification and payment as they themselves did. This ultimately ensures a guaranteed revenue stream for the content providers (Hollywood studios), retailers (online and stores where UV certified DVDs and Blu-Ray discs are sold), Walmart (content verifier), and ISPs (who provides the service for accessing one’s digital library). Hollywood studios profit not simply from the associated costs of providing rights tokens to consumers for access to their digitized content, but they also profit by appearing to be attentive to consumers interest for the accessibility of streaming and sharing their entertainment collections. And the profits associated with learning about the viewing and consumption habits of these digital consumers is invaluable to media conglomerates whose interest about such things know no bounds.  For retailers, the added bonus of offering UV certified physical media in the form of DVDs and Blu-Ray discs comes from the increased demand and traffic by consumers whose interest has waned in light of emerging alternatives like Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Red Box and Amazon Instant Video. And that bonus comes at no cost to them since they were already selling the movies and television series at the same wholesale cost to distributors but can now mark up such media for the value added by virtue of the UV certified Logo.

For consumers, the costs associated with the accessibility, sharing and streaming of one’s digital library content is highly dependent upon a stable, high bandwidth internet connection. The ISP expenses are also avoided in UV descriptions of its service, although consumer’s use of its technology makes such service indispensable to its functioning. Moreover the higher the volume of simultaneous streams (currently capped at three), the higher consumption of bandwidth and in some cases where a consumer’s ISP imposes caps, the higher the costs for accessing the content that one already owns (albeit in the ostensibly non – streamable physical form of a DVD or Blu-Ray disc). Moreover, in those circumstances where consumers violate the caps imposed by their ISPs, they face the equally distasteful consequences of throttling that for most ISPs, is more about profit than network congestion(Ramirez, 2014). And the emergence of4K content being included into the UV world makes this unaccounted cost even more disconcerting. Higher bandwidth costs makes accessing the streaming digitized version of one’s movie or TV series come at a premium that is never described in the literature marketed to consumers. This in turn means that the ISPs will continue to generate increased profits by virtue of their participation in the UV paradigm.

Kalker, Samtani and Wang have found another flaw in the design of UltraViolet, which is the belief that consumers are interested in building digital libraries, despite the proliferation of Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Red Box, Amazon Instant Video and others (to say nothing of P2P systems) there are equally valuable alternatives to the costs associated with the accumulation of digital content advocated by the UV model (2012, p. 10). And one must recognize that the “value of a specific distribution method or mode of consumption is not determinable without taking into account the costs and benefits of the alternative” (Steirer, 2014, p. 7). Some of these criticisms are embodied in a one tongue-in-cheek fictional letter by “studio executives to consumers” written by Lore Sjöberg illustrates the absurdities associated with participation in the UV model:

You see, the movies you paid for with your own money will be stored for you in your ‘locker.’ Just like the lockers you use at school or the gym, they’ll be convenient, somewhat secure, they won’t actually belong to you and we can do anything we want with anything in them…Once we have your movie (which, I’m obliged to remind you, is not actually your movie) locked up, you can access it on any of several devices, at any time that our service is running properly, with no limitations other than the ones in the EULA you agreed to without reading (2011).

Third, UltraViolet strongly suggests that its model is one that is user friendly through its simple navigation and ease of implementation.  However this assertion belies another major criticism of its complexity. There is no explanation for why only 12 registered devices are permitted per account, or why only 6 members are allowed per account.  And a close examination of the terms of service, and extant literature say nothing about what happens when libraries are merged or how to de-merge such a library. Although UltraViolet’s literature says that consumers purchase of digital rights (to their own content) do not expire, the few ways in which such rights can be accessed is limited to just those few distribution services that currently exist. Rights tokens are not currently downloadable in any format, thus essentially making these electronic tokens insubstantial, ephemeral promises with little consequences for their invalidation – begging the question what exactly are consumers buying when they pay these verification costs to one of the 10 UltraViolet services*? Taylor observes that “Online access to movies in your UltraViolet Library is provided by services that participate in >UltraViolet. Most of them provide free streams and downloads, but there is no obligation for them to provide free access forever [emphasis added]. Thus UltraViolet’s promise of liberation also accompanies a premium on accessibility that is defined exclusively in terms (1) of their own choosing, (2) that have no tangible physical form and (3) possess only the mere appearance of permanency but without any guarantee for the future.>

Additionally, the existence of thCommon File Format which is utilized to deliver digital content to consumers supports multiple DRM systems, and such a scheme makes its MPEG-4 container, H.264/AVC video and multichannel audio encrypted components part of a file format that is readable only through the use of UltraViolet compatible devices for viewing; indeed at the time of this article there are no less than 5 different DRM technologies implemented in the UV Common File Format *. This is a fact that is not actively advertised by DECE consortium partners. And while many technology companies are increasingly implementing and adopting UV standards to make their computers, game consoles, and Blu-ray players UV compatible, certainly not everyone will be financially able to purchase such devices at their higher mark up. Moreover the restrictions on the number of simultaneous streams (3) ultimately limits the utility of any consumer’s purchase of UV compatible device over 3, though one could own up to 12 under current limitations. Currently known compatible devices are limited to only 9 hardware and software companies* and there is no guarantee that current technology companies will continue to expand the line of devices and apps which enable streaming content from the UV system.

And an especially frustrating aspect of the UV system is the use of redemption codes (which is the easiest method, but not especially reliable) for obtaining the rights for streaming one’s digital content.  Movies on either DVD or Blu-Ray discs come with a redemption code often found printed on a paper insert inside of the case.  These codes enable the user to skip the entire process of scanning the physical disc.  However the use of these codes come with their own issues:

The UltraViolet right bundled with a disc may not match the resolution of the disc. That is, you might get an HD UltraViolet right with a Blu-ray disc or you might only get an SD UltraViolet rights with a Blu-ray disc. You usually get an SD UltraViolet right with DVD, but you might get an HD UltraViolet right (Taylor, 2014)

Ultimately what this means for the consumer is that the only way to be absolutely certain what kind of redemption code they have is to enter it into a redemption page, check one’s library to see what resolution their content is – by which time it’s too late to do anything about it.This is to say nothing of the fact that redemption codes expire as well, despite the fact that one has purchased their full price movie or TV series already, thus forgetful consumers may find themselves being forced into a tip to Walmart to have their media scanned (Taylor, 2014). Collectively these objections make the ultimate winners in this contested territory of digital ownership and distribution the major Hollywood studios and not the consumer. As Kalker, Samtani and Wang contend, “In the brave new world…the ultimate control over when, where, and how these movies are being consumed lies with UltraViolet(2012, p. 8) and the Hollywood Studios who produce the content for distribution through this system, and for whom the most profits eventually accrue.

Despite these objections, there is no question that the implementation of UltraViolet technology is one step in a larger scheme of maximizing profits by DECE participants, but especially for the Hollywood studios whose fight – as content providers – against piracy has taken its toll both in terms of profitability and in terms of consumer loyalty. And, according Gary Arlen, studio executive’s endorsement of this strategy has been profoundly enthusiastic. “‘UltraViolet is a new service for giving consumers a new relationship with ownership’ says Thomas Gewecke, president of Warner Bros. Digital Distribution.

Arlen says the studio’s research found that viewers want “future-proof digital ownership” and “never having to worry about” access to movies and TV shows they have bought. ‘When we examine how viewers look at ownership, their preference is to own and control their media,’ Gewecke says. ‘UltraViolet solves their problems’ (2013) . Here one sees the explicit appeal by studio executives to consumer’s interest in ownership as an opportunity to create a solution to a problem that doesn’t necessarily exist. UltraViolet functions as a technology that provides the appearance of control but in actually communicates an utterly false illusion of ownership when critically examined in more detail. According to Arlen’s interview with Mark Teitell, general manager and executive director of (DECE), Teitell promoted four distinct “consumer benefits” that UV technology offers:

Anytime/anywhere, access, which Teitell says fulfills “a real belief among consumers that if they own [content], they should be able to watch it.

No fear of losing things you buy,with the additional value that cloud storage eliminates problems if discs are lost, broken or scratched. Teitell points to UltraViolet’s “perpetual proof of purchase” that assures access as well as “security and certainty.”

Sharing among family and household members. Up to six people can share an account, with the ability to set up parental control restrictions and recommendations for others within the group to watch a title.

Interoperability, which assures that access to the content “works the same way on different devices,” a usability factor that did not exist in earlier electronic sell-through systems, Teitell says (2013). These four issues are indeed legitimate concerns for entertainment media consumers. However, there are a number of solutions to the issues that these “benefits” touted by Teitell purport to solve. Although UltraViolet does provide “anytime/anywhere access” if the service is working, consumers certainly do not own the digital copy that is being actively streamed to them.  Although the fear of loss, or damaged physical media is a very real concern for consumers and enthusiasts the “perpetual proof of purchase” that is associated with UV technology described by Teitell is neither “perpetual” nor “certain”.  As Taylor observes, “UltraViolet retailers are required to provide streams for at least five years after you buy the movie, but there's no guarantee you can stream forever or stream for free after the first year” (2014). The limitations on the number of users per account (currently at 6) remains unexplained and while interoperability is another legitimate concern the increasing participation in electronic standards by device manufacturers make such concerns progressively less and less valid. For DECE consortium members, the largest threat  to UltraViolet’s success (apart from piracy) is that UltraViolet will become a catastrophe because of younger consumer’s disinterest in cultivating media collections as type of cultural (and economic) practice  (Arlen, 2013). Such concerns are certainly valid considering the popularity of “video on demand” services among younger demographics of consumers, to say nothing of the popularity of P2P networks and the proliferation of high quality files hosted on torrent sites around the world.  But this belief about the lack of interest in accumulating entertainment media content fails to account for the cultural value that such collections generate for consumers and enthusiasts of all ages, or the political economic costs which are imbricated through the construction of such collections. Indeed, Bradley Schauer pointedly predicts that “it may be the case that younger consumers, having grown up in a digital media environment, will have the same sentimental attachment to their digital movie and music collections despite (or perhaps because of) their immateriality that older collectors have to their well-worn vinyl records and DVD boxed sets” (2012, p. 45).

Consumption and Commodity Fetishism in an All-Digital Era

Historically, the concept of “ownership” has long held an appeal to consumers (of all demographics) as it unambiguously communicated to the world the vested, exclusive rights one had in a commodity, as well as functioning as a symbolic representation of one’s socioeconomic status through disposable wealth. Indeed the widespread private ownership and accumulation of goods “came to be seen as a socially and economically desirable from the standpoint of capitalist production” (2006, p. 233), and according to Ted Striphas it’s the “allure of plentitude and respectability” that historically accompanied conspicuous consumption of consumer goods which contributed to a “growing middle class consciousness” (2006, p. 236). I contend that the same allure and consumptive interest persists, even for younger generations, for their electronic media. Certainly any reader who has young teenagers will attest to the fact that most exhibit some kind of interest in accumulation of consumer goods. One need only read how this consumerist behavior is learned at an early age for children who possess no disposable income of their own but nevertheless are conceived of (and conceive of themselves) as legitimate consumers despite this distinct disadvantage (Banet-Weiser, 2007). This consumerist behavior was aptly described as “conspicuous consumption” by Thorstein Veblen in 1899 to describe the incessant need for commodity ownership and display whereby “property…becomes the most easily recognized evidence of a reputable degree of success as distinguished from heroic or signal achievement” for middle class people and “it becomes indispensable to accumulate, to acquire property, in order to retain one’s good name” ([1899] 1994, p. 19). And I would argue that the formation of DECE (and its subsequent investment in, and development of, UltraViolet technology) was an explicit reaction by a number of heavily invested, capitalist parties to find creative ways to stimulate widespread consumption of electronic consumer goods. Those parties development of UltraViolet was a strategy that attempted to carefully regulate the disposition of those electronic consumer goods in an era of decreasing profit of previously reliable lines of revenue.

Such a strategy is not without precedent and the American historical record is replete with examples in which companies and other corporate entities have attempted to influence and control the conspicuous consumption of goods as a way in which benefits accrue disproportionately to them rather than the consumer. The litigation over the photocopier stemmed from a perceived threat to the revenue of book publishers and authors; the litigation over the VCR stemmed from a perceived threat to the revenue of Hollywood movie studies; and the more recent litigation over P2P networks stemmed from a perceived threat to the revenue of music studios, the consequences of which produced immediate reaction by the entertainment industry with the promulgation of Digital Rights Management or, DRM and the vigorous pursuit and enforcement of intellectual property rights of copyright holders. Siva Vaidhyanathan foresaw the consequences of such vigorous enforcement when he predicted the rise of “a global ‘pay-per-view’ culture in which people no longer will be able to purchase consumer goods but instead lease them from the ‘copyright-rich’ corporations” (2001, pp. 82, 181).

Conspicuous consumption of electronic consumer goods is functionally no different from that of physical goods. Indeed, if anything the evolution of DRM provoked a backlash against media corporations which has created a perverse intensification amongst some consumers to accumulate electronic goods and participate in the sociality of ownership that repudiates the imposition of DRM technologies. And as Stini, Muve and Fitzek point out, “Most providers of digital content are currently fighting a losing battle against piracy copies [sic] distributed via peer-to-peer file sharing in the internet or on self-burned DVDs and CDs” (2006, p. 1). Moreover they contend that the imposition of DRM on consumers is a failing strategy since “DRM artificially reduces the usefulness of the digital content by limiting the actions that a legitimate user can perform on the content.  Thus a consumer who legally purchases digital content protected by DRM not only has to pay for the content but also gets an inferior product compared to someone who obtained an illegal, unprotected copy for free. An approach that relies on ineffective technology while putting legitimate owners at a disadvantage isn’t going to succeed” (2006, p. 1).

Certainly history has shown that their conclusions have proven true given the widespread use of P2P networks today as a primary source of digital content exchange.  However, in those cases where DRM is hidden from view or is less visible to consumers (as is the case for UltraViolet), corporations and conglomerates like DECE can studiously avoid that consumer backlash while conveniently harnessing that reinvigorated interest in conspicuous consumption by digital enthusiasts. And the membership of the DECE consortium have a potent financial incentive in maintaining that interest, when companies like Hollywood studios “that control the copyrights of cultural ‘software’ – back catalogs of music, film, television shows, etc…are considered by many investment firms to be extremely lucrative, perhaps the most profitable companies in the communications market” (McLeod, 2001, p. 6).

Not altogether different from the consumerist behavior of conspicuous consumption is that of commodity fetishism. According to Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, commodity fetishism is best defined as a circumstance in which “properties such as price, which are ascribed to objects through cultural processes, come to appear as if they were natural or inherent properties of the objects…The theory of commodity fetishism therefore suggests that capitalism reproduces itself by concealing its essence beneath a deceptive appearance. Just as quality appears as quantity, so objects appear as subjects and subjects as objects.  Things are personified and persons objectified” (2002, pp. 71-72). Under this definition then, UltraViolet anticipates that the digital consumer’s interest in the consumptive practice of accumulating film and television content in their digital library represents the successful fulfillment of its technoeconomic potential.  Indeed the value that digital consumers place upon the rights to streaming content that they already own is a fundamental premise upon which UltraViolet is constructed. It’s the belief that UltraViolet’s technology offers added value to commodities that digital consumers already possess, thus making the expenditure of additional money eminently reasonable under the rhetorical marketing rhetoric created by DECE participants.  Moreover, the need to pursue the purchase of these digital rights is part of a larger strategy that not only anticipates the commodity fetishism of consumers but also encourages it, while simultaneously concealing the logical flaws inherent in the economics of such consumption as described earlier. Thus, these consumers are commodified as vital components of a new revenue stream while their digital rights are personified as the way to display one’s cultural savvy, technological acumen and demonstrate to the world the extent of an enthusiast’s commitment to the Avant-garde abandonment of physical media and the adoption of all things streaming, downloadable and digital.

Equally important to this observation about the impulse to collect, is the sociocultural value of these digital commodities which influence their conspicuous accumulation since “…the kinds of television shared in P2P networks tends to be the most highly valued and aestheticized, scripted prime-time comedies and dramas addressed to younger, more affluent and masculine audiences” (Newman, 2012, p. 466). The fact that quality is a primary determining factor which defines the sociocultural value ascribed to such digital collections is, I argue, especially important to the DECE consortium for whom UltraViolet was created. UltraViolet originated as a means to increase profits amidst an era of increased P2P exchange and to combat piracy while advancing a new revenue stream during a period of precipitous decline in physical media sales. Indeed, the strategy behind the implementation of UV technology, is to guarantee (1) the purchase of “legally sanctioned” physical media as much as it is to pursue new revenue for digital movies and television while (2) compelling consumers to validate their purchases of that “legally sanctioned” content.

Unfortunately, this strategy fails for a number of reasons, the least of which is the increasingly evolving cultural pessimism against the digital ownership of “legally sanctioned” content that strongly resonates with both older and younger consumers alike (Striphas, 2006; Stini, Mauve, & Fitzek, 2006; Dixon, 2013) and that threaten to destabilize the model upon which UV technology relies. To understand what this threat is and the implications for UltraViolet and other emerging technologies like it, one must understand the sociocultural conditions that influence the ways in which society conceives of digital ownership as an economic practice of conspicuous consumption.

Derek Kompare notably observes that at one point in time, the accumulation of entertainment content on physical media was construed as an important new type of commodity relationship whereby DVD box sets become collectible objects.  In his assessment, consumers “rent or purchase discs for home use with the revenue split among retailers, wholesalers, distributors and producers” and this scheme soon proved to outpace traditional revenue sources just two years later when in 2002, “video revenue totaled $20.3 billion, more than twice the take at the box office.  Accordingly home video, rather than theatrical exhibition, is the primary source of profits in Hollywood” (2006, p. 339). Especially important to this analysis of, is what Kompare defines as the relationship of consumer to commodity, noting that it’s the “existent, tactile relationships between readers and books and listeners and sound recordings” that deeply resonated with people thereby making DVD’s so popular, especially as single DVD discs took up the same physical space.  Indeed, the similarities between book collections and DVD collections functioned because “discs are thus spatially congruent with existing fixed media forms, fitting easily into domestic settings on shelves entertainment centers and coffee tables” (2006, p. 339).

It’s precisely this type of familiarity that is so crucial to the digital distribution systems of today.  While the tactile interaction is missing, the sociocultural value associated with the prestige of collecting remains very popular among digital content enthusiasts.  One finds this regularly on display on social networking sites, on discussion board forums* and elsewhere when consumers can list the various minutiae of their digital collections*. Indeed, I myself am a culprit, deriving satisfaction from the social value ascribed to my digital collection with notations about the size, number and resolution quality of my content (with much chagrin, I’ve even done it here – see footnote 5). Thus the ways in which value is ascribed to our digital media collections can best be understood as a psychological manifestation of technological developments within existing social, commercial and cultural formations. In much the same way that Kompare argues that “extensive media collections, so much a part of the modern domestic environment, require effective, aesthetically compatible storage. Whether the collections consists of books, LPs, CDs, VHS tapes, laserdiscs, or DVDs, users generally take care to store their media properly, ideally in some form of order” (2006, p. 347) so too must consumers be able to experience the process of ordering their digital content in ways that reproduce the feelings, associations that would normally accompany physical media collections and it is clear that UltraViolet is an attempt to accomplish this objective.

The visual interface that lists one’s collection functions much like a bookshelf does in one’s home, by symbolically but unambiguously communicating a message about the preferences and tastes one has in their entertainment choices (See Figure 4). UltraViolet’s web portal is complicit in the process of exemplifying one’s digital entertainment collection a reflection of the enthusiast’s “manifested preferences” and whose social position as a connoisseur demonstrates their cultural competency. In keeping with Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of taste, UltraViolet’s primary mechanism of interaction between consumer and commodity, solidifies the enthusiast’s personal investment in the curation of their digital collection, thus reifying the accumulation imperative amongst these consumers. Indeed this electronic representation of one’s digital library replicates a marketing rhetoric “that appeals to the collector’s desire to recognized as a privileged insider” who have knowingly relinquished their “material ownership for the sake of accessibility and convenience” (Schauer, 2012, p. 36).  UltraViolet manipulatively exploits the “feelings of aesthetic pleasure, achievement, purposefulness, mastery and status” (Belk, 2001, p. 140) that enthusiasts derive from such accumulation as well as the cultural capital that such individuals possess, thereby deviously enhancing collector’s strong sense of investment and ownership.

Claims of collection size, lossless audio and video quality, and diversity of content proliferate amongst enthusiast reaching 217 pages in length on UltraViolet forum pages and populated with photos of one’s digital collection. Such displays and the discourses of ownership and cultural taste embodied in one’s digital collection illustrate a conscious endorsement of commodity fetishism for digital entertainment media*. Indeed, Schauer contends that “the aesthetically pleasing and prominent display of a collection reinforces the collector’s sense of order, control and status (2012, p. 44) [emphasis added]. Indeed frequent comparisons are drawn between enthusiasts for whose collection comes closest to that of the total titles supported in the UltraViolet collection, currently numbering approximately 6500 titles as of the date of this research*.

In much the same way that P2P systems circulate digital content between and amongst itself, so too does digital content live on in under the auspices of UltraViolet’s many different organizational hierarchies. I argue that the collection and organization of one’s digital content (under the aegis of UltraViolet’s library) functions much like a practice where one’s cultural value can be assessed by others, thus making UltraViolet’s indispensability to avant-garde consumers renewed. Indeed Newman’s research confirms this conclusion when he notes that “the superiority of new technologies is given as self-evident and as distinguishing a youthful, masculine and technologically adept community from the mainstream” of consumer society. The collection, accumulation, organization and distribution of digital content via UltraViolet’s system functions as a kind of imperative for the improvement of cultural consumption by appearing to empower individuals to take control over their content. 

Indeed, there is an entire suite of desktop, cloud and mobile app software that exists simply for the purpose of tracking, managing, updating and sharing one’s media collections to include movies, books, music, comics and games (Hoogerdijk & Harte, 2014). Although digital content, by its very nature is intangible, the experiences that accompany its accumulation is directly similar to that experienced by collectors of physical media whereby consumers derive both sociocultural prestige and personal satisfaction from its collection, and organization. Below one will find a screenshot of my own collection utilizing one software’s web-enabled portal that I’ve made publically accessible for review.

 SEQ Figure 4. - My Vudu Library (7/18/2014).

Figure 5. My Collectorz Book & Movie Collections (7/18/2014).

Michael Newman contends that the exchange of telenarrative content on P2P networks represents a similar interest in the ordering of digital content which “bespeaks the high value of some forms of TV to media consumers eager to locate and select episodes and to devote time and resources to their acquisition and experience” (2012, p. 465). Much like the P2P digital content that is the target of Newman’s study, the availability and desirability of legal online downloads or streaming options like UltraViolet possess serious limitations since “the terms are never entirely the audiences own preferred options. Downloads carry DRM to make the film’s playable only with certain software or devices, which impedes their usability and long-term value” (2012, p. 477). These restrictions, have spawned a plethora of objections by media enthusiasts, consumer groups and legal rights entities (Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2014; Schneier, 2014). Collectively these entities in pursuit of the digital rights movement, conceive of technology not simply as a commodity but also as a resource that “speaks a certain kind of language about cultural production – a participatory ethos and its policies. Technology can also be thought of as…an opportunity to allow for a particular relationship between consumers and content” (Postigo, 2012, p. 177).

And technologies like UltraViolet do indeed offer an opportunity to challenge the ways in which consumer enthusiasts have traditionally conceived of themselves and the ways in which their consumptive practices look like. When UltraViolet is successfully implemented according to the sociocultural objectives and economic goals of its consortia members, it explicitly attempts to convince users that the world ought to be a certain way” and that “way” is one where consumer activity is in service to content providers and unfavorable to consumers. Moreover, UltraViolet simultaneously becomes a “space of contest where the players in this particular struggle come to realize their worldviews and convince (or cajole) others into embracing those views” (Postigo, 2012, p. 177) of unrestrained, conspicuous consumption. There is no question that UltraViolet has indeed become a technology that encourages a “form of consumption [that]…increasingly controls our level of access and involvement” (Postigo, 2012, p. 178) between commodity and consumer, content producer and commodity collector.  Hector Postigo points out that “…it is only when we willingly adopt technological systems that they become embedded in the social architecture and obtain their formidable power to influence society in certain ideological ways” (2012, p. 178). And if his assertion is correct, then it lies with consumers to exercise a healthy dose of skepticism about solutions to issues that technologies like UltraViolet purpose to solve.

Media of the Future, Accessibility and Socioeconomic Divide

There is little question that the future of entertainment multimedia content lies with digital distribution and streaming.  When “33 million subscribers stream more than a billion hours of Netflix content every month, using one third of peak US bandwidth to do so” (Paskin, 2013, p. 101)how can we ignore what this evidence states or its implication for the future? The future of digital streaming media is increasingly challenging traditional television as well. Although the development of original programing by Netflix (e.g. “House of Cards”, “Orange is the New Black”, etc.) and the accompanying financial investment such development represents, the complexities of human consumption makes even these propositions an unstable one.  The paradoxical nature of our human nature means that highly watched telenarratives like NCIS or the The Big Bang Theory, does not mean that they are equally highly valued series, as is the case with Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones (Stinson, 2013). Indeed research has concluded that some series occupy a position as a “loss leader” where their anemic, substandard financial profitability is typically outweighed by their sociocultural value, much like that of HBO series like The Wire and True Blood (Johnson Jr., 2013).

Indeed, this phenomenon has provoked a near crisis within traditional media assessment and measuring since the traditional model of Nielsen rating is about to collapse when “a full 40% of Twitter’s traffic during peak usage is about television” and that in the future “a show’s tweetability may be just as crucial as the sheer size of its audiences” (Vanderbilt, 2013, p. 94). This “loss-leader” phenomenon also explains why Breaking Bad has a bigger audience on Netflix than it does on its own home studio/channel, AMC and according to one executive the process of binge consumption of entertainment content suggests that “people who did this (binge watch an entire season) were much more attached to the shows. And because they were more attached to the shows, they reported more value in watching them on Netflix (Paskin, 2013, p. 103). Carter and Stelter have found that “binge viewers” are “…more attentive. They are less distracted. They have picked a time when they have the opportunity for more engagement than they would have if their kids were bugging them or they had three things to do at once” (2012).

In a future world where digital distribution of entertainment content has become the norm and physical media has been effectively replaced and relegated to museums, who wants to access digital content and who can afford to do so becomes the primary criteria upon which conspicuous consumption practices will revolve. UltraViolet functions in eerily similar ways to what Jeremy Rifkin argues is the "outsourcing of ownership" and where "the purchase of lived experiences becomes the consummate commodity” (2001). Indeed, UltraViolet’s practice of contracting third parties to provide and maintain access to digital content thus freeing Hollywood studios from the financial burdens of maintaining storage space for actual digital copies of films for download serves only to give consumers a commodified entertainment experience, rather than a tangible product.  

Author Bio

Michael Johnson Jr., Ph.D., is a full-time instructor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies (CCGRS) at Washington State University, where he currently teaches both introductory and upper-division, interdisciplinary undergraduate courses in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies. He earned his B.A. at the University of New Orleans (2005), an M.L.A. in social and political thought at the University of South Florida (2008), an M.S. in library and information science from Florida State University (2015), and his Ph.D. in American studies at Washington State University (2013). His book, Tickle My Fancy, Fat Man: Emerging Images of Race and Queer Desire on HBO, is currently under contract with Lexington Press, in its Critical Studies in Television Series in press fall 2015. His work can be found in the Journal of Men's Studies, Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture,Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, The Velvet Light Trap, Journal of Popular Television, and Educational Studies, and he has published chapters in edited collections by ABC-Clio, Praeger, Lexington Books, Palgrave Macmillan, Information Age Press, University of New Mexico, and Cambridge Scholars Press, to name a few.


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[1] Referred interchangeably herein as “enthusiasts” and “consumer enthusiasts”

[2] A consortium of film studios, tech companies, retailers, device manufacturers, ISPs and other companies

[3] Courtesy of (Taylor, 2014)

[4] The studios supporting UltraViolet include Paramount Home Media Distribution, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Universal Studios Home Entertainment and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

[6] And in my own case, would total well over $600.00 for my growing collection of over 300 movies.

[7] Though, as of the date of this article, a consumer’s movies can be temporarily streamed up to 5 other people; this accessibility is however, restricted since each slot must be deactivated before being made available for another person’s access

[9] Google Widevine; Marlin DRM; OMA CMLA-OMA v2; Microsoft PlayReady; Adobe Primetime DRM; DivX Plus

[10] to Windows (including Windows Phone 8 and Microsoft Surface RT), Mac, iOS (iPhone and iPad, including AppleTV using AirPlay mirroring), Android (including Kindle Fire and Nook tablets), PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Roku, Chromecast, and Google TV

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