Recently, a patron asked what our library does with the digital movie codes that come with some of the DVD and Blu-ray disc we purchase. We have been throwing those codes out, so he wanted to know if we could give those codes to him (he would be willing to purchase them).
I would like to know the legality of selling them to patrons to raise funds for the library. What about including them in prizes? Is it covered by the First-Sale Doctrine? What if the fine print on some read "sale or transfer prohibited?" The discs are purchased with tax-payer money, does that further complicate the situation?
When purchasing DVDs/Blu-rays at a library there are often alpha-numeric Digital Movie Codes available to receive a digital copy of the movie. These licenses seem to be tied to a single person that cannot be used or circulated in any easy way. Is there anything a library could use these licenses for, such as public viewings (as long as they are covered under the appropriate movie license) or giveaways at the library. Or are these Digital Movie Codes best to be thrown away because of the copyright restrictions surrounding digital content?
Two questions about a creative use of resources! Truly a joy to behold. Unfortunately, this is one of those questions where I have to be a killjoy.
Before I dig into why, let’s clarify: both members have asked about the “Digital Movie Codes,” or alphanumeric keys, on (or in) the packaging of certain DVD’s, Blu-rays, and 4K/UHD discs. Through a process called “redemption,” the holder of such a code can download a copy of the movie in the package.
After “redeeming” the code, the holder can download the film to their phone, tablet, or computer. The idea is that once you’ve paid for the hard copy, even if it is copyright-protected, the purchaser should be able to view the movie on the medium of their choice.
So, can these fantastic codes be used, transferred, or raffled off by a library? Because of the diversity of licensing terms, there is no one, definitive answer. But my time researching showed that a growing number of these codes are supported at the back end by a company called “Movies Anywhere.”
Digital codes originally packaged in a combination disc + code package (for example, a combination package that includes a DVD, Blu-ray, and/or 4K/UHD disc(s) and a digital code) are not authorized for redemption if sold separately. By redeeming one of these codes, you are representing that you, or a member of your family, obtained the code in an original disc + code package and the code was not purchased separately. Your representation is a condition of redemption of the code and of your obtaining a license to access a digital copy of the movie. To read all terms and conditions applicable to using your Movies Anywhere account, click here. If you agree, click the REDEEM button above.
See that clause “you…obtained the code in an original disc + code package”? THAT is what kills the joy and puts the kabosh on the clever transfers and re-uses posed by the members. Simply by redeeming the code, the person who acquired it from the library (whether by gift, purchase, or luck of the draw) would be in violation of the terms of the license…not a very patron-friendly practice (although some patrons might disagree)!
But wait, there’s more.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the library could have a DVD-viewing room where the digital content of purchased movies was watchable? That, too, is likely forbidden, since as of this writing, participation in “Movies Anywhere” is limited to “individuals.” “Companies, associations and other groups may not register for a Movies Anywhere account or use the Movies Anywhere Service,” states Section 1.a. Libraries, while not generally thought of in such terms, are “companies,” so arguably, even redeeming the codes to put the content on library-owned technology is not allowed.
Of course, when it comes to these codes, check the fine print. If they are through a service that doesn’t bar transfer (or on the flip side, doesn’t require the actual purchaser of the package to be the redeemer), you may be able to proceed as envisioned. That said, I doubt many movie companies will depart from the Movies Anywhere model. Content providers have had almost two decades since the “RIAA wars” to get this right, and they don’t want to leave any revenue on the table.
How enforceable are these license restrictions? We’ll see. The industry is suing when the terms are violated, and defendants are fighting back (see ongoing case Disney Enterprises, Inc. et al v. Redbox Automated Retails, LLC, in federal court in the Central District of California). That said, libraries are in a different place than most “companies,” when it comes to restrictions on information. If there is ever a compelling, information-access reason—or a disability accommodation reason—to use one of the codes, that should be explored.
P.S. I saw a lot of reasons why libraries can’t give away or sell these codes, but I saw nothing that stops patrons from buying the hard copy, using the code, and eventually donating the hard to the library. THAT would be within the “First Sale” doctrine. So while I know that’s the obverse of what the members envisioned, perhaps that can restore some joy to these questions.
 Of course, “redemption,” which requires an account, also means the content provider gets a view into your movie choices, viewing habits, and choice of media. But I will save a privacy rant for another day!
 Who are “legal residents” of the U.S., no less.
 The fight over digital copying of music, eventually leading to many fans swearing off Metallica.