DVD copying software on trial

A federal trial now under way could decide whether educators, students, and other consumers will have legal access to technology that allows them to make backup copies of their DVDs on a computer hard drive.

On April 24, movie industry lawyers urged a federal judge to bar RealNetworks Inc. from selling software that allows consumers to copy their DVDs to computer hard drives, arguing that the Seattle-based company’s product is an illegal pirating tool.

Hollywood alleges that RealNetworks’ RealDVD product allows users to copy a film from a DVD without paying for it–a practice the movie studios call “rent, rip, and return”–and contends it’s one of the biggest technological threats to the movie industry’s annual $20 billion DVD market.

RealNetworks’ lawyers countered that RealDVD is equipped with piracy protections that limits a DVD owner to making a single copy–and they say the software offers a legitimate way to back up copies of movies legally purchased.

The same federal judge who shut down the music-swapping site Napster in 2000 because of copyright violations is presiding over the trial, which is expected to cut to the heart of the same technological upheaval roiling Hollywood that forever changed the face of the music business.

The studios fear that if RealNetworks is allowed to sell its RealDVD software, consumers will quickly lose interest in paying retail for movies on DVD that can be rented cheaply, copied, and returned.

Their lawyers argue the software violates a federal law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes software and other tools that enable digital piracy illegal. They also contend shoppers will widely condone such illegal behavior if RealNetworks’ product is allowed on the market.

Bart Williams, a lawyer representing the studios, told the judge that evidence uncovered in the litigation shows RealNetworks engineers purchased copying software that is illegal in the United States from a company in Ukraine.

“One is not supposed to copy DVDs, and that’s in fact what RealDVD does,” Williams said. “Real’s objective in all of this is to make money off the studios’ investments without paying for it.”

The company argues that the contract it signed with the DVD Copy Control Association, which equips DVD player manufacturers with the keys to unscrambling DVDs, allows RealDVD because the software doesn’t alter or remove anti-piracy encryption like illicit software that is easily obtained for free online.

RealNetworks says its product legally fills growing consumer demand to convert their DVDs to digital form for convenient storage and viewing.

“RealNetworks saw there was an unmet consumer need,” said company lawyer Leo Cunningham. “RealNetworks is a company that respects copyrights.”

With RealDVD, educators theoretically wouldn’t have to worry about buying replacement copies of DVDs that are shown in class; they could make backup copies and store these on a computer hard drive in case the original disc becomes damaged.

In October, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel temporarily barred sales of RealDVD after the product was on the market for a few days. At the time, the judge said it appeared the software did violate federal law against digital piracy, but ordered detailed court filings and the full trial to better understand how RealDVD works.

The lawsuit has incurred widespread wrath from bloggers, digital rights advocates, and groups on both sides of the political spectrum–including former Republican congressman and Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr and the left-leaning Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Critics accuse the studios of stifling innovation as they attempt to develop their own copying software.

“It’s all about control,” said Cato Institute scholar Timothy Lee. “No one is allowed to innovate in the DVD space without industry permission.”

The industry, through the Motion Picture Association of America, counters that its goal is to stamp out piracy. It says it welcomes legitimate attempts at innovation.

Regardless of the trial’s outcome–and the judge isn’t expected to rule immediately–some predict that Hollywood control over digital copies will continue to wane because of the proliferation of illegal DVD copying software online.

“If Hollywood wins, I don’t think much changes in the real world,” said Fred von Lohmann, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Anybody who wants DVDs copied can download [illegal] software for free in 10 minutes.”


RealNetworks Inc.

Motion Picture Association of America

Electronic Frontier Foundation

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