Netflix “Watch Now” PC limitation

While dealing with the DRM issue in my previous post, one of the things I ended up doing was — of course — reinstalling Windows XP SP2. I do this pretty often because I end up getting a “bad feeling” about the current state of Windows, and when I can’t fix/solve something, formatting + reinstalling is the best choice.

After reinstalling and loading up the Netflix Viewer, I was greeted with a message that said I had reached the limit of unique PCs allowed to view Watch Now content (the limit was 4), and that I was required to contact Netflix Technical Support before I could begin watching videos again. This problem is completely reminiscent of the Windows XP Activation issue, where if you change hardware or reinstall the OS + activate too many times, you’re forced to call Microsoft every time you reinstall.

This isn’t something I agree with, for what it’s worth. My hardware and software are my property: I will do with them what I wish. I have a legitimate store-purchased copy of Windows XP (hell, I’m a Microsoft employee — would you expect otherwise?!), which means I should be able to do whatever I want with it (within reason of course), which includes installing it as many times on my PC as I wish. I understand piracy is a problem, but as Steve Jobs said, piracy is a social problem, and it’s one you cannot solve with technology. Any attempts to solve it with technology results in nothing more than irritation and pain for customers — case in point.

Anyway.

I was on hold with Netflix for 116 minutes: yup, almost 2 full hours before I got to speak to a human. On the other hand, the human I spoke to was fairly technical, and didn’t give me much difficulty when I explained to him the situation and what I had done that likely induced the problem. I told him I had been dealing with a DRM problem which I had solved, but in the process had reinstalled Windows.

The tech was able to tell me that resetting the DRM settings via resetdrm.exe would not cause this problem, but reinstalling Windows XP definitely would. He also took the time to explain that the 4-license (or 4-PC) limitation is induced by movie studios (I took that to mean the MPAA). The way he described it was as follows: Netflix keeps track and allows up to 4 unique IDs (associated with your account of course) to play Netflix movies — probably to allow up to 4 PCs in the same household to use Watch Now. When a fifth is detected, the fifth will receive a message like what I got, and force you to talk to Netflix Technical Support if you want an explanation.

I explained to the tech that I’m a system administrator and thus I reinstall Windows fairly often, and that I pretty much reserve the right to reinstall the OS whenever I please for whatever reason.

The tech explained that Netflix argued the same point with the studios, and the agreement reached was that Netflix could be allowed to permit a “fifth and final permission” which would allow that system to play videos, but after that point would no longer be able to assist in any issues relating to the said limitations. Meaning, if any of your PCs got that message from then on, Netflix TS would refuse to help you.

He also added that every 365 days from the start of the year, all of the IDs associated with your account would be deleted. I sure as hell wasn’t going to wait until January 2009 to be able to use Watch Now. :-)

The tech then asked me if I wanted to use my fifth and final allowed ID. I told him yes, with one caveat: I wanted to know how to retain/save that ID, so if I reinstalled in the future, I could simply restore that ID and continue to use Watch Now without any problems.

The tech more or less refused to tell me how the system worked, or how I could back up the ID. He did, on the other hand, recommend that I use a reimaging system (such as Norton Ghost or Acronis TrueImage) to back up the current state of my PC as it was right now, because the ID itself was stored in the Registry.

He then enabled the ID in question and sure enough Watch Now began working immediately, urging me to take a system image ASAP. Two hours on hold for nothing more than a 10 minute conversation.

I reserve the right to choose to install my OS however I wish, and I choose not to use reimaging software. Why? I make my own XP CDs using nLite, slipstreaming latest updates and other whatnots into the image. I rebuild that image and reinstall using it. If you use a disk snapshot/imaging utility like TrueImage or Ghost, you’ll be forced until the end of time to use Windows Update to get said updates. Reimaging systems work great for massive corporate enterprise environments, but not very well for people like me. :-)

All of this got me thinking: if the ID is in the registry somewhere, backing it up is simple. REGEDIT.EXE and its Export option would suffice. So off I went, digging around in the registry.

Lo and behold, I found the following registry key:

HKCU\Software\Netflix\Movie Viewer\ID

I changed this ID to something different than what I had after the tech enabled the ID, and sure enough, I got the nasty message from Netflix (this time saying I had reached a 5 PC limit).

I restored the ID to the working value, and an interesting thing happened: immediately prior to the video playback, I was prompted for my Netflix login name and password. The window asking me for that looked to be something within the Netflix Movie Viewer itself, and not something from the web browser. I entered my credentials, and voila — Watch Now started working again!

Thus, after reinstalling XP, all one has to do is install the Netflix Movie Viewer software and restore said registry entry. I’m not sure why Netflix just doesn’t disclose the registry entry location; you can’t go copying the ID to random computers or give it to your friends, because they’ll need your login/password to be able to use it. It’s a generally secure system, so disclosing the path won’t circumvent anything.

I just wanted to share this piece of information with the world, because guaranteed there are many others like me. Remember to back up HKCU\Software\Netflix\Movie Viewer\ID before reinstalling your OS, folks!