Illegal DVD-ripping software is flourishing, despite well-publicized wins by DVD piracy foes and laws against copying Hollywood movies. Digit checked out the dodgy DVD market.

Although US copyright laws outlaw the sale of software that bypasses DVD copy protection, many companies continue to make the software packages available.

BlazinDVD of New York is one of a dozen US firms that we found on the Internet selling such software. BlazinDVD’s offering was called Perfect DVD Copy, and a photo of the software’s CD jewel case displayed on the company’s Web site claimed the program would “Override All Copy Protection”.

A week after we contacted the company to discuss this statement, Perfect DVD Copy was no longer available. A company spokesperson said BlazinDVD wasn’t aware the software violated any laws.

Surplus Computers of California and JB Software, based in Indiana, both sell a software title called Video Studio 4000 Pro, which is published by an overseas company called Hakku. The software title contains tools for copying DVDs.

Owners of both of these companies say they were not aware the software title contained DVD-ripping software. “As far as I know, that software was perfectly fine to sell,” says Bobby Hanby, owner of JB Software.

However, the federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act bans providing information or tools to evade copy-control technology, including the Contents Scramble System used in DVD media. Companies that sell DVD-ripping programs and US users of the software are breaking the law, according to copyright attorneys.

Experts say this thriving software market exists because current DVD copy protection is no longer relevant when it comes to protecting DVDs. This is because DVD ripping software is easily purchased online and, in many cases, is available free on Web sites. However, Hollywood continues its fight to protect itself.

Easy does it

Copying DVDs is simple – all you need is an average modern PC and one of the many consumer-friendly DVD copying programs. Many free DVD-copying programs even automate the ripping process, making it easy for non-technical users.

Critics of DVD copy protection say people have a fair-use right to make personal backup copies of DVDs they buy. The DVD Copy Control Association, which owns the DVD encryption technology CSS, disagrees, arguing that DVD-copying tools accelerate the piracy of Hollywood movies.

CSS is an important deterrent against copying movies and then swapping them online, says John Malcolm, the anti-piracy chief of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA acknowledges movie swapping is not a big problem today. But, the MPAA hopes to nip the problem in the bud before it faces the kind of widespread piracy the music industry is facing.

Copy software all around

In August of last year, 321 Studios, one of the first companies to offer DVD copying software, folded when the movie studios represented by the MPAA successfully convinced a judge to ban the company from selling its flagship product, DVD X Copy. After a series of lost court battles, the company went out of business. DVD X Copy was one of the most popular programs available that allowed users to copy Hollywood DVDs despite anti-piracy protection designed to prevent duplication.

However, many DVD-copying programs that allow you to duplicate non-commercial DVDs, such as discs with your own video work on them, are still readily available at retail stores. These software titles do not include the decryption software necessary to bypass CSS. However, makers of these copying packages make it simple to bypass US copy restrictions on DVDs, saying it helps international users of its software.

Take the program ICopyDVDs2 Standard from Me Too Software, sold at major computer retailers. When you attempt to copy a copy-protected DVD, ICopyDVDs2 warns that doing so is illegal and offers a detailed explanation of how non-US customers can use the search engine Google to find and download a program that enables them to use ICopyDVDs2 to copy any CSS-protected DVD.

The firm Bling Software also sells a DVD-copying program, called 123 Copy DVD, that ships minus actual CSS decryption software. However, visitors to 123 Copy DVD’s Web site can find a link there to a second Web site located in Spain. This second link permits you to download a “third-party software plug-in” that allows you to use 123 Copy DVD to copy CSS-protected DVDs. Bling Software operates both Web sites.

The plug-in is “intended for use in countries where DVD decryption is legal,” according to Bling’s Web site.

The MPAA declined to comment about any specific company. However, when the now-defunct 321 Studios attempted to offer a “ripper-free” version of its software, the MPAA characterized such a move as a transparent ploy that allows users of software to “do indirectly what can’t be done directly.”

“We will do everything in our power to protect our intellectual property. We will not hesitate to enforce our rights when we see fit,” Malcolm of the MPAA says.

Legal wrangling

The 321 Studios court case is just the most high profile of many lawsuits against firms selling and distributing DVD-copying software. Other cases include that of Tritton Technologies, which once distributed the program DVD CopyWare, and Kaleidescape.

That company sells an ultra-expensive DVD library and video server system that copies DVDs to a hard disk and streams them throughout a house. In December, movie studios represented by the MPAA filed suit against Kaleidescape, claiming its ability to copy DVDs to a hard drive breaks copyright laws.

Despite such lawsuits, however, the results of Hollywood’s efforts to stop distribution of DVD-ripping software remain uneven.

Even 321 Studios’ DVD X Copy software has found a second life. A version of the program continues to be sold online by a Central American firm called DVD X Copy International, which is based in Belize, where the company is not directly subject to US laws. Other DVD copying software is available free on the Net, much to the chagrin of the MPAA. For example, Afonic DVD Guides, based in Greece, is dedicated to DVD burning.

“We are aware of the existence of companies out there selling DVD copying software,” said a spokesman for the DVD Copy Control Association. “We monitor what’s going on, and will protect our intellectual property when appropriate.”

Hollywood losing the battle?

In the copyright war, Hollywood is losing, says Wendy Seltzer, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet civil liberties organization. The EFF says encrypting DVDs is waste of time given how bad the locks are. The EFF is supported in this view by Bruce Schneier, an expert on encryption technology, who says, “Hollywood is dreaming if they still think CSS is a piracy deterrent.”

The MPAA has filed many lawsuits in the past year, not only against firms selling DVD-copying software, but also against hundreds of individual users for allegedly trading movies illegally over peer-to-peer networks. In October 2004, Hollywood feature films accounted for 2 per cent of files available on peer-to-peer file sharing networks, according to researchers at BigChampagne, which provides information about popular online entertainment.

The MPAA doesn’t accept the argument that CSS is no longer a valid lock. It maintains that the technology is an adequate deterrent that prevents average computer users from copying DVDs.

Relentless fight

On almost a weekly basis, the MPAA pinpoints a Web site selling or giving away free DVD copying tools, says the MPAA’s Malcolm. “It’s a tough fight, but the battle is ongoing,” he says.

It is consumers who stand to lose the most in Hollywood’s battle to protect DVDs from being copied, says Art Brodsky, communications director of Public Knowledge, a consumer-interest group that opposes the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. “People have to have fair-use rights in a free market,” he says, maintaining that Hollywood is overstepping its bounds by banning DVD copying.

The EFF’s Seltzer says, “Hollywood will continue to thrive by providing consumers a great product at a fair price. Not by crippling technology.”

One million DVD lawbreakers

Meanwhile, consumers are left to navigate the legal and ethical implications of copying DVDs. Over one million copies of 321 Studio’s DVD X Copy were sold before the company was shuttered, according to the company. The MPAA says consumers who use the software are breaking the law.

Brodsky argues that there are many honest people who want to copy DVDs onto laptops to avoid carrying a disc while they travel, and those who want to make backup copies of DVDs in case the originals are damaged.

The MPAA doesn’t buy that argument. DVDs, created with proprietary CSS technology, were never designed to allow people to make copies, the organization argues. For Hollywood, DVD copying is just part of the problem. The MPAA has identified a number of different consumer electronic devices, like digital video recorders, that it sees as threats to its livelihood.

Still, firms such as ADS Tech continue to sell products that can be used to copy DVDs. ADS Tech makes a hardware device called DVDXpress, which is intended to help people make DVD backups of VHS tapes. But the product also allows you to make reduced-quality copies of DVDs.

“I prefer to see the glass as half full,” says the MPAA’s Malcolm, referring to the battle to stop DVD copying. “I’m sceptical of any silver bullet, but we can always make things harder for the bad guys.”