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MovieSwap’s slippery streaming plan involves warehouses full of DVDs, and a loophole

You could call MovieSwap a rescue operation for an entertainment medium of a bygone era. DVDs, those discs that helped bring the world into the digital age of movies and TV shows, still lurk in dust-covered entertainment cabinets and media racks around the world — to the tune of 25 billion copies, according to the new startup — and MovieSwap wants them.

You could call MovieSwap a rescue operation for an entertainment medium of a bygone era.

MovieSwap is attempting, through a Kickstarter campaign, to build an online video library by collecting physical DVDs and serving them up through a cloud-based service. It’s like what Netflix once was, with physical and streaming components, only in this case the content comes from anyone and everyone looking to participate. Serious traction, they reckon, could make the service the largest in the world.

Those are lofty goals, indeed. To find out more, we sat down with the folks behind MovieSwap to get to the bottom of how their plan will work, and how the startup can claim it’s not doing anything illegal.

Stack ‘em up for a fat catalog

So far, MovieSwap has only tested its business model in its home-country of France, with 200,000 DVDs sent from “a few thousand individuals,” says co-founder and CEO Cyril Barthet. He estimates Americans have spent upwards of $200 billion on DVDs, and they should have the chance to swap them with each other and everyone else across the globe.

In this sense, users wouldn’t be sharing DVDs like a typical file-sharing or torrent platform, but rather swapping one-for-one digitally. MovieSwap is designed to be legal because it is dictated purely by ownership, wherein two individuals swap two DVDs they already own and have paid for. The ad hoc setup is different than one person sharing a file with anyone who wants to download it.

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“Our business is to make sure that there is always one owner for one DVD, and that only the DVD owner is allowed to watch it,” says Barthet. “This means that if 200 people want to watch The Matrix at the same time, then we need to have 200 copies of The Matrix DVD in our warehouses that are available for swapping.”

The current inventory of 200,000 DVDs amounts to 12,000 different titles, which he touts as being more than Netflix. The goal is to get to 50,000 — “a nice first step on the road to the universal movie library of our dreams,” he adds.

The name suggests that this is solely a movie-based operation, but TV shows are part of the mix. Naturally, nothing new currently running on air now will be available, since they need to be out on DVD, but MovieSwap figures it will be “the perfect place to binge-watch cult shows like Seinfeld or The Sopranos,” and discover series’ from around the world. Shows not available on Netflix or other streaming services, particularly those from HBO, could offer the chance for viewers to catch up.

Ready to watch, anywhere

MovieSwap’s layout looks to be very Netflix-esque, with cover art laid out in grids for easy navigation. The idea is to simply choose the movie or show, hit play, and then offer up a DVD to swap to start the content. The other user would have already allowed the swap by unlocking his DVD to make it available, Barthet explains.

By taking in physical DVDs, MovieSwap will also bring in all the bonus content that goes with them to preserve the experience of actually owning the disc. The interactive menu, language, subtitles, deleted scenes, commentaries, making-of, trailers, and whatever else happens to be packed in. The service uses the free open source multimedia app, VLC, to read the DVDs over HTTP, so you can access it all through a browser or mobile app.

Access will be available on PC, Mac, Android tablets and on TVs, courtesy of the company’s own HDMI SwapStick. There is no support for iOS yet, nor for the Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, or Amazon Fire TV.

This will be a subscription-based service, with unconfirmed pricing, and heavily reliant on users sending in their DVDs to MovieSwap warehouses. Those logistics will be worked out after the campaign ends, but with shipping costs being incurred by users, local or regional options are going to be explored. Barthet notes that the startup is also “studying partnership possibilities to address this issue and make the cost as low as possible.”

MovieSwap

It has already begun incentivizing DVD shipments during the campaign by offering a free SwapStick for anyone who sends in at least 50 DVDs. Upon the campaign’s conclusion and beta period when the subscription kicks in, users can earn a free month by sending in their DVDs. Users who don’t send anything in can still join and use the service, with one DVD supplied to begin swapping.

“If someone wants to pull out a DVD, there is no problem,” he says. “Our job is to register and store the DVDs on behalf of their owners, so that DVD owners can get back their own copy among thousands in our giant warehouses. They will just be charged technical and logistic fees.”

As MovieSwap plans to roll out worldwide, languages will figure prominently, with content displayed that matches the user’s language preference. In that sense, it would be possible to present one DVD that has Spanish as a language or subtitle, instead of one that doesn’t, for example.

Fighting piracy

What MovieSwap does might be viewed as a softer form of piracy by some, despite the legality it claims to operate under, but Barthet actually sees his service as a way to fight piracy.

“We are also targeting young folks used to streaming movies and TV shows illegally on their phones or laptops with poor quality,” he says. “We want to be the service that will turn this generation away from piracy by being the more simple and cool alternative. We want to make piracy look lame.”

“We want to be the service that will turn this generation away from piracy by being the more simple and cool alternative.”

Except much of the piracy today targets HD content, which MovieSwap will offer none of from the outset. He doesn’t rule out adding Blu-ray discs to the service, but will focus on building a DVD mass first. Naturally, only official DVDs will be accepted, not the knockoffs and copies peddled by unsanctioned vendors.

The swapping element is the big draw to MovieSwap, given that it is very easy to ‘rip’ DVDs and store them locally at home for streaming on platforms like Plex. In this case, one’s own collection is joined by many others, presumably making a massive array of titles available.

The campaign has already surpassed its goal as of this report, leading to an early beta this summer.