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Get real, Netflix: There’s nothing ‘complex’ about downloading movies

Online video store Netflix starts in GermanyOnline video store Netflix starts in Germany
Reed Hastings, CEO and co-founder of online video store Netflix, in 2014.Bernd von Jutrczenka — picture-alliance/dpa/AP

How great would it be to download a few shows and movies from Netflix to watch on a long plane or bus ride? Not very great at all, according to the streaming giant, which is claiming most users don’t want the added “complexity” of a download option.

This explanation makes little sense, however, and Netflix (NFLX) is likely using it to obscure the real reason its customers can’t download movies.

Chief product officer Neil Hunt recently addressed the download issue at a trade show in Berlin. In remarks reported by Gizmodo, Hunt explained there are no downloads on Netflix because, well, it would probably be too hard for most folks.

“I think it’s something that lots of people ask for,” he said. “We’ll see if it’s something lots of people will use. Undoubtedly it adds considerable complexity to your life with Amazon Prime–you have to remember that you want to download this thing. It’s not going to be instant, you have to have the right storage on your device, you have to manage it, and I’m just not sure people are actually that compelled to do that, and that it’s worth providing that level of complexity.”

Oh, come on. Outside of Netflix’s dwindling DVD subscribers, it’s a fair bet most of its customer base can handle downloads just fine. As for demand, as Hunt himself acknowledged, a lot of people are asking for it. The appeal, of course, is that downloads would mean access to movies while traveling or in places without reliable Wi-Fi.

And if complexity is such a problem, why are people raving about a new Amazon (AMZN) Prime perk, which lets members store shows and movies for off-line viewing?

No, the real reason Netflix is passing on downloads probably has nothing to do with user experience or technical issues, which are both areas of strength for Netflix. Instead, the best explanation for the lack of downloads probably has to do with copyrights.

Keep in mind that Netflix’s right to stream Mad Men or Mean Girls does not necessarily include the right to offer downloads. Just as studios don’t let movie theaters sell DVDs of what they screen, they won’t simply allow Netflix customers to make a copy for later. The permission to download is a separate type of copyright, and studios don’t go around handing it out for free.

That means if Netflix wants to offer downloads it will have to cut a check for doing so. One exception might be shows like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, which are homegrown Netflix products but, even in those cases, there might be copyright issues related to performer royalties.

I asked a Netflix spokesperson for more details, but all she would say is, “We’re focused on providing a great streaming experience.” (Nor would the spokesperson offer any data about the popularity of Netflix’s latest original series Narcos, which is enjoying great critical reviews and word-of-mouth.)

The bottom line is that, sooner or later, Netflix will change its tune about the “complexity” of downloading–but first it will have to work out some copyright issues behind the scenes.

For more on Amazon’s offering, check out this video:


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