You Don’t Really Own the Digital Movies You Buy
As the entertainment industry shifts its distribution strategy to let people buy or rent movies closer to—or simultaneously with—their release in theaters, you may find yourself amassing a larger digital library than you’ve had in the past. But when you buy a movie from a digital service like Amazon Prime Video or Vudu, does it really belong to you? What if you buy a song on iTunes or download one to your phone from Spotify? Are these files yours forever? If you cancel the service or, as unlikely as it may seem, one of these huge companies goes out of business, what then?
The answer is a little complex, but the short version is, no, you don’t actually own the digital media files that you purchase. This doesn’t mean you’re imminently at risk of losing every digital movie and TV show you’ve ever bought at the whim of a megacorp, but it is possible. Here’s what you need to know.
What it means to “own” digital content
What do we mean, exactly, when we talk about owning something digital? Everybody knows—or hopefully everybody knows—that it doesn’t mean you can turn around and sell that digital item to someone else, broadcast it, or otherwise distribute it en masse. You don’t need to dig far into any terms-of-service agreement to find such actions expressly forbidden.
For this discussion, to own a digital file is to be able to watch or listen to that content anytime you want, with no further payments, in perpetuity—or at least as long as you can get a device to convert that ancient 4K video file into something that your brand-new holodeck on your space yacht can read.
By that definition, well, you still don’t own anything. Not really. What you’re purchasing in most cases is a license to watch that video or listen to that song. Effectively that license is good for as long as it really matters. I mean, let’s be honest: If an 8K sensurround remaster of The Lord of the Rings comes out in 2030, are you going to care about the 1080p version you bought on Vudu?
Let's take a look at the FandangoNow/Vudu terms of service, which are fairly typical. I’ve bolded the important parts.
When you order or view Content and pay any applicable fees, you will be granted a non-exclusive, non-transferable, non-commercial, limited license to access, use and/or view the Content in accordance with any usage rights contained herein and additional terms that may be provided with your devices and/or with such Content (“Usage Rights”).
Pretty standard stuff. You can watch the item as often as you want, but the terms specify that you can’t “sell, rent, lease, distribute, publicly perform or display, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any right to the Content to any third party.” You probably already know this: Just because you purchased and downloaded a movie doesn’t mean you can burn it to a DVD and sell the DVD—among other reasons, because you would have to crack the digital rights management on the file, which is also expressly forbidden. Digital rights management, or DRM, allows a company to restrict what you can do with a digital file, such as preventing copying or permitting you to watch it only a certain number of times.
In the FandangoNow/Vudu terms of service, there is one additional section worth looking at, under “Viewing Periods”:
Fandango's authority to provide Content to you is subject to restrictions imposed by the movie studios and other distributors and providers that make Content available to Fandango (“Content Providers”). These Content Providers may designate periods of time when Fandango is prohibited from renting, selling, enabling downloading and/or streaming certain Content to you, including Fandango/Vudu Purchased Content, and you agree that these limitations can limit your Content access.
The “including Fandango/Vudu Purchased Content” part is the big one. What this means is that if Disney, for example, decides it doesn’t want to allow Vudu to sell its movies anymore, the company can have Vudu turn off Disney movies. Unlikely as that may be, theoretically the service could block access to movies you’ve already purchased—as the terms state, “[Y]our ability to stream or download Content may terminate if our licenses terminate, change or expire.”
Here’s how Amazon says the same thing. Again, the bold emphasis is mine:
“Availability of Purchased Digital Content. Purchased Digital Content will generally continue to be available to you for download or streaming from the Service, as applicable, but may become unavailable due to potential content provider licensing restrictions or for other reasons, and Amazon will not be liable to you if Purchased Digital Content becomes unavailable for further download or streaming.
A case about this is working its way through California courts.
And here is Google’s version, for media content sold through its Play store:
Content that you purchase or install will be available to you through Google Play for the period selected by you, in the case of a purchase for a rental period, and in other cases as long as Google has the right to make such Content available to you. In certain cases (for example if Google loses the relevant rights, a service or Content is discontinued, there are critical security issues, or there are breaches of applicable terms or the law), Google may remove from your Device or cease providing you with access to certain Content that you have purchased. For Content sold by Google LLC, you may be given notice of any such removal or cessation, when possible. If you are not able to download a copy of the Content before such removal or cessation, Google may offer you either (a) a replacement of the Content if possible or (b) a full or partial refund of the price of the Content. If Google issues you a refund, the refund shall be your sole remedy.
Interestingly, Google says that it may offer you a refund if it deletes your content without asking.
How likely is any of this to happen? Not very, which we’ll discuss in a moment.
Here’s what you definitely don’t own
There is some media content that you are absolutely, flat-out renting. On the music side, Spotify is a good example. If you cancel your subscription, you no longer have access to any files you’ve downloaded to your phone. Your subscription lets you lease these files, with no option to buy. The music industry loves this arrangement, by the way, as you’re continually paying to listen to the same songs, albeit a fraction of a penny each time. I’ve singled out Spotify, but all streaming music services are like this—in contrast to download services such as iTunes or Amazon Music (see below).
Streaming video, obviously, is another category in which you don’t own anything, even if you download content to watch on your mobile device or computer. For example, if you cancel your Netflix service, anything you’ve downloaded gets locked out, just as with Spotify. The same with Disney+’s Premier Access. Even though you’re paying a price that’s closer to a purchase fee (usually $30), it’s still more like a rental that’s accessible only as long as you keep your Disney+ subscription.
Going one step further, if you go to a different country, even if you’re just on vacation, you might get locked out of content you could watch in your original country. A VPN might help with that by geoshifting your location; then again, it might not.
So what does this all really mean?
It’s unlikely that any corporation would willingly nuke the presumed assets of millions of customers, despite how much these companies might love for you to buy all your movies yet again. The backlash would be substantial, and the resulting lawsuits would likely take years and millions of dollars to resolve. Corporations, for the most part, would be reluctant to alienate and anger such a huge customer base.
That’s not to say it couldn’t happen. Just take the squabbles between Roku and Warner, or Roku and Google, as two of many examples in which consumers are forced to deal with the fallout between bickering companies.
A more likely scenario is that a media company goes out of business. In this case the most probable course is that some other corporation buys up the digital-media portion of the business and carries over your right to watch the content you bought. This already happened with Vudu, which was owned by Walmart for over a decade and is now owned by Fandango Media, a corporation itself owned by NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia … which are owned by Comcast and AT&T, respectively.
But if you’re still worried about losing access to your purchased content, the solution is to go physical. It’s a lot harder for companies to stop you from watching a physical disc, though that has been tried in the past. Although digital rights management is built into Blu-ray and DVD players and receives periodic updates via the web, if you don’t connect the player to the web, it should be able to continue playing any compatible disc format. Some discs even come with a code that unlocks a digital copy, which is certainly convenient—though as we’ve discussed, you can’t expect those copies to last forever (most discs even have a date by which you need to activate the code).
Audio is even easier. Shocking as it may seem, you can still buy CDs. Rip them to a hard drive, and you have digital copies for as long as your hard drive lasts (and presumably, the CD will last even longer). Alternatively, you can buy and download DRM-free music and convert it to whatever file format you like or trust. iTunes and Amazon Music files are DRM-free, as are the downloads from many smaller music sites, many of which offer even higher-quality audio files. For older music downloads that have DRM, you can typically convert them to a DRM-free format such as FLAC or WAV.
So, no, you don’t own your digital files, and theoretically you could at some point be prevented from watching or listening to them. In reality, your digital collection is probably safe for the foreseeable future—but if the very idea of a company locking you out of your movies and music makes you angry, we suggest embracing physical media such as 4K Blu-rays and CDs, which will likely survive any digital-media apocalypse.
Buy movies and TV shows from the Apple TV app
Buy movies and TV shows, download or stream them, and watch them anywhere with the Apple TV app.
Before you buy
- You need an Apple ID to purchase anything from the Apple TV app. Your Apple ID is the account that you use to access Apple services. If you use other Apple services, like iCloud, sign in with the same Apple ID. If you don’t have an Apple ID, you can create one.
- If you see next to a video in the Apple TV app on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac, or PC, then either you purchased that video or it's available to download because it's part of your Apple TV channel subscription. Tap to download that video to your device.* You won't be charged again for the video.
- Learn which devices you can use with the Apple TV app.
* To stream a video on Apple TV, smart TVs, or streaming devices, select Play.
Buy, then download or stream
Follow the steps below for your device.
On your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch
Open the Apple TV app, tap the Watch Now tab, then tap a category, like Movies, TV Shows, or Kids. Or tap Search to find a specific movie or TV show.
When you want to buy something:
- Tap a movie or TV show.
- Tap the Buy price, then tap Purchase. To buy a season or Season Pass for a TV show, scroll down to How to Watch, then tap Buy Seasons. You might need to sign in with your Apple ID.
- To play your video, tap . Or tap to download the video to your device.
- To find your movies and TV shows, go to the Library tab.
On your Mac
Open the Apple TV app, then go to Watch Now, Movies, TV Shows, or Kids at the top of the screen. Or go to Search in the upper-right corner to find a movie or TV show.
When you want to buy something:
- Click a movie or TV show.
- Click the Buy price, then click Purchase. To buy a season or Season Pass for a TV show, scroll down to How to Watch, then click Buy Seasons. You might need to sign in with your Apple ID.
- To play your video, click . To download the video to your Mac, click .
- To find your movies and TV shows, go to the Library tab.
On your Apple TV, smart TV, or streaming device
The Apple TV app is built in to Apple TV and is available on compatible smart TVs and streaming devices.
Open the Apple TV app, then go to Watch Now, Movies, TV Shows, or Kids at the top of the screen. Or go to Search to find a movie or TV show.
When you want to buy something:
- Select a movie or TV show.
- Select the Buy price. To buy a season or Season Pass for a TV show, scroll down to How to Watch, then select Buy Seasons. You might need to enter your Apple ID password to complete your purchase.
- To watch your video, select Play. You can't download videos to your Apple TV, smart TV, or streaming device.
- To find your movies and TV shows, go to the Library tab.
In iTunes on your PC
Open iTunes on your PC, select Movies or TV Shows from the pop-up menu in the upper-left corner, then click Store in the navigation bar. Or go to Search to find a movie or TV show.
When you want to buy something:
- Click a movie or TV show.
- Click the Buy price to purchase an entire season. Or click the price next to an episode to purchase a single episode. You might need to sign in with your Apple ID. For TV shows, you can find options for buying seasons and Season Passes at the bottom of the product page.
- To play your video, click . To download the video to your computer, click .
- To find your movies and TV shows, go to Movies > Library or TV Shows > Library.
Learn about a movie or TV show
If you want to know more about the release date, audio languages, subtitles, rating, or iTunes Extras offered with a video, check the information page for a movie or TV show.
- If you see , , , or near a movie's name, you can watch it in higher-quality video formats on compatible devices.* Learn more about 4K, HDR, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos.
- If you see or near a video's name, the video includes closed captioning or subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing. Learn how to turn on subtitles and audio languages.
- If you see near a video's name, the video includes audio-described content. This means an optional audio track will describe non-verbal moments and action in the movie. Learn more about audio-described content.
- To see if a movie includes bonus features, like deleted scenes, trailers, or commentary, scroll down to How To Watch and look for Includes iTunes Extras under Buy. Get help with iTunes Extras.
- If you have a Season Pass or Multi-Pass for all current and future episodes of a TV show, you can find details about the pass at the bottom of the product page. When a new episode is available, you'll get a notification and an email.
*4K, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, HDR, and iTunes Extras (if included) are only available with high-quality (HD) movie purchases.
In some countries and regions, Movies are called Films, and TV Shows are called Programmes.
Store availability and features might vary by country or region. See what you can buy in your country or region.
Information about products not manufactured by Apple, or independent websites not controlled or tested by Apple, is provided without recommendation or endorsement. Apple assumes no responsibility with regard to the selection, performance, or use of third-party websites or products. Apple makes no representations regarding third-party website accuracy or reliability. Contact the vendor for additional information.
The Best Places to Buy Your Digital Movies
Where NOT to Buy Your Movies and TV Shows
It's all well and good to list out the various options for your digital video lockbox, but what about those companies you should avoid at all costs?
Obviously, if you've never heard of the company, you shouldn't trust them with your movie collection. We've all heard of Apple and Google and Amazon, which makes us more comfortable doing business with them.
But what about your cable company? It might seem easy to purchase movies directly from your cable provider, but it really becomes just one more thing that locks you into the service. While some companies offer ways to view your purchases after you end the service, it's much better to go with a company that offers more permanence.
Don't like your digital library tied to one single company? Neither does Movies Anywhere. The big difference is that Movies Anywhere can actually do something about it. And the big surprise is that they actually did.
Movies Anywhere allows you to buy movies from iTunes, Prime Video, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube, Microsoft, XFINITY, and Verizon FIOS.
Thanks for letting us know!
Advertiser Disclosure: At Slickdeals, we work hard to find the best deals. Some products in our articles are from partners who may provide us with compensation, but this doesn’t change our opinions.
There are lots of places to watch and buy digital movies, and it’s not always easy to decide which one is best. When video stores were a thing, we didn’t have dozens of them to choose from, nor did we have to worry about compatibility between the movie and the device for playing the movie.
But it turns out that with just a little foresight and preparation, it’s not that hard to build a digital movie library cheaply. And all that competition for your dollar means you don’t have to compromise on where you watch and how. You really don’t have to choose between the cheapest price and the best experience… at least, most of the time.
We’re taking a deeper look at the most popular movie download services out there right now, and how you can build your digital library without compromising on your platform of choice.
Which Service Should You Use to Watch Digital Movies?
The answer to this question depends on the device you use most often to watch movies. It makes sense, right? The best service is the one available on your preferred platforms. But here’s the thing: What if you change devices? What if you like Roku now, but move to an Apple TV? What if you get a shiny new display with Android TV built in?
Currently, only two video purchasing (and rental) services are available on just about any modern streaming device you can buy: Google Play (via YouTube), and Vudu.
If I were choosing between the two, I would opt for Vudu. While I’m not a huge fan of Vudu’s interface, it’s reasonably fast, reasonably organized, and, unlike video purchases on YouTube, Vudu supports both major HDR formats in 2019 via HDR10 and Dolby Vision. It also supports object-based surround sound format, Dolby Atmos (on some devices, like Apple TV 4K and Xbox One X/S).
That said, YouTube is available on every device, including through a browser. It’s more ubiquitous. I have a hard time imagining any device shipping in the foreseeable future without YouTube support.
If you prefer other services though, you can, of course, go on using them. And in most cases, it’s not going to matter. Why? Because of Movies Anywhere.
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Movies Anywhere — The Only Reason Buying Digitally in 2021 isn’t a Nightmare
In 2014, Disney announced Disney Movies Anywhere, a new program that allowed users to create a primary account with its service that then linked to other online movie services to provide an unheard of benefit. No matter which of the participating services you bought Inside Out or The Force Awakens from, you’d be able to watch it on any of the partner platforms.
In 2017, Disney relaunched the service as Movies Anywhere, this time in concert with a number of other studio partners. It now includes Twentieth Century Fox (which Disney owns), Sony Pictures Entertainment, Warner Bros., and Universal Pictures.
So what does this mean? If you buy a movie from any studio that supports Movies Anywhere (which is most of them), and from a service that supports Movies Anywhere (which is basically any service you might use), you can watch it on any other app/service that supports Movies Anywhere. It’s like a universal license for the movie you’re buying. So basically, sign up for a Movies Anywhere account, if you haven’t already.
While there are still a few devices that do not cater to Movies Anywhere, it seems like this will become less and less of a problem for people who use the digital movie locker. On March 23, 2021, Movies Anywhere announced that its app is now downloadable on any Samsung Smart TV model from 2017 to 2021. Anyone with a Samsung TV can use some of the app’s most popular features, like Screen Pass and Watch Together, the latter of which allows you to share one of your purchased films to a friend or family member for 72 hours, or three days.
Even though they aren’t the first TV manufacturer to support Movies Anywhere, they are one of the largest, so chances are your digital movie library will increase simply because more people can join (and share their library with you!) Now, Movie Anywhere customers can view their digital movie purchases with Roku, Kindle Fire, Fire TV, Vizio and LG smart TVs, iOS, Android, Chromecast, Apple TV and Samsung TV.
Where Can You Buy Digital Movies?
Once you have a Movies Anywhere account, you should start linking it up to other services. I would recommend signing up for all of them, regardless of where or how you’re watching. For example, iTunes and Apple’s video services are really only available on PC, Macs and Apple Devices. There’s no PS4 or Xbox One iTunes app. But if you have Movies Anywhere, you can still buy movies that participate in the program on iTunes and watch them on Youtube or Vudu or any other compatible service.
An important caveat: Video rentals do not qualify for Movies Anywhere. You’ll have to watch them where you rent them.
Meanwhile, I hear a straw man arguing, “All of these movies are for sale on every service — why not just buy the movie on the app I’m using?” It’s a good question, and this is where we get into prime Slickdeals territory: Sales.
Digital video sales are extremely common now, and it can be surprisingly cheap to buy a lot of movies. For example, I don’t think I’ll ever use Fandango Now to watch a movie, but if something I want is cheap there, I’ll buy it, because I can watch it on Vudu (if it’s a Movies Anywhere title).
As of now, there are nine services that support Movies Anywhere, and thus, are good places to keep an eye on for movie sales. These include:
I have accounts with all of these services, and it’s very easy to link them to Movies Anywhere — it’s a one-time step.
There is one other way to purchase digital videos, which can often be a great value, and that’s buying physical discs. Most Blu-rays (and UHD Blu-rays) include a digital copy via an enclosed code. And if you have a lot Blu-rays with codes you haven’t entered, now would be a great time to gather them up and do so. It’s more painless than you think, and the system has grown by leaps and bounds in the last five years. You might already have a pretty large digital library.
Where Are the Best Digital Movie Deals?
There are deals for digital movies all the time, and the best place to keep track is, well, here, on Slickdeals. Our community frequently finds and posts digital movie sales and offers across just about every movie service.
Generally speaking, however, there is one platform that stands out. Despite primarily watching 4K video on my Xbox One X, I buy most of my non-physical movies on iTunes.
Why iTunes? First, things are on sale almost all the time. Second, and as importantly for me as a 4K TV owner, Apple, unlike virtually every other platform holder, doesn’t charge a price premium for UHD movies. And Movies Anywhere titles, in my experience, will propagate the highest quality version of a film you own across services.
Assuming, that is, that the 4K version is available on those services. For a variety of reasons, some movies are only available in 4K on some services. If that’s something you care about, you should check who has the version you want, and whether you’re willing to pay extra — sometimes, a lot extra — for 4K, HDR and, on services like Vudu, Atmos surround sound.
Basically, if 4K is a thing you care about, you’re going to have to pay a bit more attention. But Apple’s entry into the space has helped bring prices down and increased the adoption of 4K on every service. Competition, it turns out, is good.
There’s Only One Small Catch
Not every studio supports Movies Anywhere. This includes the homes of some very, very popular films and franchises. Paramount films, for example, is not part of Movies Anywhere, which means films like Bumblebee (it’s good!) or the Mission: Impossible franchise are stranded wherever you buy them.
Are you a fan of John Wick? Me too, but Lionsgate, its distributor and home, isn’t a fan of Movies Anywhere. If you want to buy these studios’ films digitally, you’re going to have to be more discerning about where you do it.
On the bright side, this could change, and possibly soon. Paramount and Lionsgate used Ultraviolet, the original digital movie code redemption portal, until that service shut down in July of 2019. It’s conceivable that those studios might join Movies Anywhere in the aftermath. We’ll all just have to wait and see.
For Paramount/Lionsgate films, my original “where to watch” statement prevails: Google Play and Vudu are services available on basically every platform and device. Since Vudu’s UHD format support is better right now, that’s where I’d buy. Your mileage will vary based on your needs.
Stay up to date on all the latest digital movie download deals by visiting the Slickdeals Digital Download Codes and Coupons page. You can also set a Deal Alert for your favorite service to be notified as soon as an offer is posted.
More to consider:
Our editors strive to ensure that the information in this article is accurate as of the date published, but please keep in mind that offers can change. We encourage you to verify all terms and conditions of any product before you apply.
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