RealDVD Makes It Easy to Copy Movie Disks to a PC

Software prevents distributing movies but can copy rented disks and will irk Hollywood.

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Upcoming software called RealDVD makes it easy to do what's been the unthinkable for law-abiding citizens: copy movie disks to a computer's hard drive. The question is whether it's legal.

A mainstream company, RealNetworks, has decided to jump into the gray area of backing up DVDs. The company cites a court ruling from last year that said another company could load DVDs onto a hard drive, as long as the virtual copies couldn't be distributed. That should prevent pirating, said the company, Kaleidescape. It sells systems starting at about $10,000 that load DVDs onto a hard drive for viewing anywhere in a home.

Since Kaleidescape's victory, it seems dozens of companies have jumped into the legal gap. Media servers that can rip DVDs were all over a trade show this weekend in Denver, where custom installers gathered to see the latest in cutting-edge tech. Most of the media servers undercut Kaleidescape with prices starting at about $2,000.

But RealDVD threatens to break the market wide open. For $50 (following a $30 introductory price), consumers can copy their DVDs to a Windows PC (Mac version promised later). They can also watch those DVDs on other computers, up to four at a price of $20 each.

A business traveler, for example, could watch the movie on his laptop without a disk. "That's not only more convenient; it means better battery life," says RealNetworks's Eric Fox. Parents are another market for saving disks from the ravages of little hands. RealNetworks hopes to get its software installed on other media players as well.

In testing, I found the software easy to use. RealDVD's polish easily bests black-market programs that can be found for copying DVDs. It also offers a handy, if somewhat limited, library for organizing and finding movies after they're on the hard drive. RealNetworks says the software will be offered for sale later this month.

Backing up a disk took 20 to 40 minutes and consumed less than 10 gigabytes of hard drive. A $75 hard drive with 500 GB of space could hold all the DVDs we currently own. The program, by the way, won't work with Blu-ray disks.

The industry group that administers the DVD license is still fighting Kaleidescape and presumably will fight RealNetworks. It's got good reason, if you accept that movies should be protected from copying.

While RealDVD purports to encourage only fair use of a disk, such as backing up or allowing the owner to watch it on another device, it can go further. It will encourage some consumers to grab a permanent copy of a movie disk that they've rented. And that could take a serious bite from Hollywood's hide.