Is It Legal to Copy a DVD?

Recent court rulings have tightened studio controls over the movies they sell on disks.

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Consumers are accustomed to copying music disks to their computers, making it easy to transfer them to portable MP3 players like the iPod. Many wonder why they can't do the same with movies on DVD. Two recent court rulings nixed novel approaches that sought to make it easy and legal for consumers to copy DVDs to computers and elsewhere. Here's a quick guide to what the courts have said, what it means to consumers, and if and when we can hope to legally copy a DVD.

[First, read about the future of DVD and Blu-ray disks.]

What stops a DVD from being copied? When movie studios were preparing to release movies in a digital format for distribution on disks, they learned from the mistakes of the music industry. Hollywood insisted the disks include a layer of copy protection that music CDs don't contain. But the technology that protects DVDs was cracked within a few years of the disks going on sale. (Actually copying a DVD would require extensive technical know-how that's well beyond most consumers.) Congress, meanwhile, passed a law that made it illegal to produce or distribute tools that enable consumers to circumvent copy protection.

So it's illegal to copy a DVD? Interestingly, no. Judges have said that consumers have a right to copy a DVD for their own use—say, for backing it up to another disk or perhaps watching it on another device, such as an iPod. That's the same "fair use" rule that made it legal to tape television shows for watching later, perhaps on a different TV. The problem is that consumers can't duplicate DVDs without software tools that get around the copy protection on those disks. It is those tools that Congress outlawed.

Is it still legal to copy a CD? The same fair use doctrine allows consumers to copy their music disks to computers and other devices. Because CDs don't have anything to protect them from being copied, it's also legal to distribute software for "ripping" them to a PC's hard drive. The ripping software doesn't have to circumvent any anticopy protections.

Who tried to loosen Hollywood's grip? Kaleidescape is a product that copies and stores DVDs on a hard drive in a proprietary and expensive home system. RealDVD did essentially the same thing, only it used the PCs that consumers already own, and it cost just $30 to buy. Both include software that prevents distribution of the stored copy, protection that is more robust even than what's on the DVD itself. Kaleidescape initially won a court case saying its system was legal. That emboldened RealNetworks to try the same thing with its RealDVD.

[Courts also stopped earlier software that copied DVDs.]

Why did the studios sue? Even if such a system prevented a copy from being distributed, movie executives argued that it hurt sales. Consumers could "rent, rip, and return." Nothing stopped rented DVDs from being copied to the Kaleidescape and RealDVD systems. The studios argued that Kaleidescape and RealDVD broke a DVD licensing agreement and that RealDVD circumvented copy protections and thus violated federal law. Hollywood won. In decisions that came within days of each other, a judge ruled against RealDVD and an appeals court overturned Kaleidescape's initial court victory.

What's the fallout? The court said RealDVD can't be sold. RealNetworks, which analysts estimate spent more than $10 million defending RealDVD, has not said whether it will continue the legal fight. A company called Telesteam that sold RealDVD-like software for Apple Macs has also pulled its product off the market. For now, Kaleidescape continues to be sold, and the company promises to continue the legal fight. But it appears a long shot to win, and few consumers can afford the $8,000 a Kaleidescape system costs.

Isn't there still software for ripping DVDs? Plenty of tools can be found on the Internet for sale, or even free downloading, that make it reasonably easy to copy DVDs. Some even work on the stronger software that protects high-definition, Blu-ray disks. But you won't find them in stores. Producing or distributing such software would appear to be illegal in the United States. Still, many people will and already do take advantage of the software, feeling they are safe from prosecution as long as they don't distribute the content from DVDs.

Corrected on 10/01/09: An earlier version of this article [0930tech] misstated Hollywood's claim against Kaleidescape. That suit was about a licensing agreement and did not allege that Kaleidescape violated federal law.