Movie Tech: What you need to know about “Digital Copy”

Movie Tech

Movie Tech is a  feature on Criticize This! that looks at how technology is affecting our movie-viewing habits. Have an idea for a Movie Tech feature? Email

For the last few years studios have been pumping out Blu-ray/DVD combo packs that include a digital copy of the film you can watch on a computer or portable device. These are large files (usually around 1GB – 2GB in size) that are comparable to a regular DVD in quality. They are also locked to the user via digital rights management (DRM) when activated, making them a lot more limited in use than the DVD or Blu-ray copy.

Almost every Blu-ray release I got in 2011 included a digital copy of some sort, yet I never felt inclined to take advantage of this “bonus”. That all changed over the holidays when I wanted to move my Apple TV to a different television in the house for the kids and realized that most of the regular movies they watch would not be available. I decided to go through my collection to see what titles had a digital copy available and began the tedious process of copying them over to my main PC (an iMac that holds all our music, photos, and important docs).

For my purposes I only used iTunes when getting the digital copies onto my computer. As we are a family that has iPods, iPhones, an iPad, and the Apple TV, this was a no-brainer. Through research, I also found that using digital copies on other devices, such as an Android phone, an XBOX 360, or on a PSP, was near impossible. The whole concept behind digital copies seems geared towards people who use iTunes and Apple products though.

A few movies in my collection that include a digital copy.

Unlocking the digital movie

NOTE: You will need an Apple Store account in order to unlock the movie file via iTunes. If you buy music or apps from the iTunes Store then you already have an account.

Most Blu-ray/DVD combo packs that include a digital copy come with three discs: the Blu-ray copy of the film, a DVD copy, and a disc that holds the key to unlocking the digital copy. I say “most” because recently a lot more include the digital copy on the regular DVD disc instead. These will be labeled as DVD/Digital Copy and work in the same manner as a standalone digital copy disc.

Getting the file is quite simple: open iTunes, put the disc with the digital copy in your computer and an iTunes Store page will load asking for your activation key. This is an alphanumeric code (or just a numeric code, in the case of Fox titles) that is included on a small piece of paper inside your Blu-ray/DVD package (see image below). The code is only redeemable once and some studios have an expiration date on when the code will stop working (the digital copy itself is viewable as much as you want and never expires). After you enter the code you’ll need to enter your iTunes Store password. Your file will transfer and be available in the Movies section of iTunes within a couple of minutes.

Redeem screen for 'Kung Fu Panda 2'.

Activation code

Great! But did this just kill my bandwidth?

This is where some people get confused as to whether you are downloading the digital copy from iTunes or extracting it from the disc. And when you’re dealing with files that are almost (or over) 2GB in size it can be of concern (especially with our limited bandwidth caps in Canada). In most cases I was happy to find that the digital copy was actually stored on the disc and iTunes only processed it for use. There was a few instances where I had to enter a URL first before being redirected back to iTunes to redeem the movie via a downloaded. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Inception, and Hanna were all done this way and the files took close to 3 hours each to download (all the other copies I had unlocked via a disc took just a few minutes). Checking my network usage I was able to confirm that I was indeed not downloading a majority of the files and only transferring them from the disc.

Watching the movie

Once you have a digital copy in iTunes it will be available under the Movies tab (see image below). You can watch it on your computer, transfer it to your iPod, iPhone, or iPad, or stream it to your Apple TV.

My movies in iTunes.

Watching the digital copy on the Apple TV is extremely easy. First, you need Home Sharing turned on in iTunes on your host computer (in this case my iMac) and on your Apple TV. This is as easy as entering your iTunes account info in the Home Sharing area so your devices can see each other. You also need to keep iTunes open on your host computer or you will not be able to see or stream the movie files. Once that’s in place you’ll see your host computer listed under the Computers tab of the main menu of your Apple TV. There you’ll be able to access your music, Podcasts, and of course movies stored on your host computer.


While the quality of the movie files seems to vary from studio to studio, I was overall impressed with what I saw. It’s definitely not Blu-ray, but when compared to a regular DVD it’s almost unnoticeable that it’s a digital copy.

As a bonus

Like organizing your music in iTunes, there is something very addictive about getting all your movies in there once you start. What began as a project for the kids turned into a few days spent moving over all the digital copies I had access to in my collection. I realized that having all the digital copies available in a nicely organized fashion acts as a database of my collection and this was a huge selling feature for me. Scrolling through the titles on my TV or via my iPod allows me see what I have that I may have forgotten about, and if it’s something worth watching off the Blu-ray (such as Jurassic Park), I’ll get up and get the real disc. If not, I click play and enjoy.

Keep in mind

These are large files and will eat up your hard drive space. They can also only be transfered/downloaded once and backing them up regularly with the rest of your music, photos, etc. is highly recommended. You will also not be able to do everything with these files you want to do (for instance, I can see the digital files on my PS3 but playing one is not possible due to the iTunes DRM). If you’re primarily an Apple user though, it’s a great system that will open up your movie-viewing capabilities.

A note about UltraViolet

As I write this article there is a big push going on in Hollywood for a new digital copy system called UltraViolet (no relation to the movie). Warner Bros. is the biggest supporter of this service, as they deliver it via their recently acquired social site, Flixster. This service has left a lot of people confused and unable to get their digital copies working (there is a thread on Amazon with many complaints). While they are introducing this new service slowly, it seems to be a step in the wrong direction for the future of delivering digital copies. We’re going to investigate it further and do a write-up on it in a later article.

Do you take advantage of the digital copies included with your DVD and Blu-ray titles? Do you have any questions about using digital copies? Let us know in the comments below.

Brian McKechnie

About Brian McKechnie

Brian McKechnie is the founder and editor of Criticize This! Email him at