Who Really Is Getting Ripped?

It’s so simple my mother could do it. Place a DVD movie into a computer, launch a program called DVD Decrypter, punch the single button--labeled “Decrypt,” for those who don’t get the point--and wait. About 20 minutes later, the movie is copied onto the computer’s hard drive.

The copy looks and sounds exactly as it would if it were playing off the DVD. But you don’t need the disc anymore.

Oh, and you might have just broken the law--even if no one but you ever watches the copied movie. My point here is not to teach you how to break the law, but to point out how silly some of the laws have gotten and how difficult it is to enforce them.

Let me explain.


The film industry is engaged in a wide-ranging legal campaign to suppress a program called DeCSS, which can make copies of DVDs. Post a copy of DeCSS on the Internet, for example, and odds are good that you will get a letter threatening legal action from the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

DVDs are encrypted, a technology intended to prevent individuals from making copies. I say individuals because encryption as currently practiced apparently doesn’t keep commercial pirates from duplicating the entire disc, encryption and all, and selling it at a discount. The industry seems less worried about factories in Asia making counterfeit DVDs by the thousands than college students giving the store away.

But tools such as DVD Decrypter suggest that events have passed the MPAA by. The film industry, the government and the courts are digging trenches as if it were World War I with the opposition flying overhead in jet-propelled bombers and parachuting troops in behind their lines. The truth is most people who are making copies of DVDs today don’t use DeCSS.

Few ever did, since the program is notoriously flaky. But there are plenty of successors to DeCSS, including such programs as SmartRipper, VobDec, vStrip, cladDVD and DeCSS+, all of which are widely available on the Internet and easier to use.


Most of the sites that host these DVD ripper programs are located outside the United States, where enforcing the orders of American judges is problematic at best.

The operators of these Web sites say people have a right to use these tools to copy DVDs for their own personal use. “I want to keep everything legal,” said Stephan Steiner, a 22-year-old student who lives in Europe. “I’m not looking to get into trouble.”

He runs a Web site called Doom9’s MPEG Palace where many of these tools can be found. His site--and others such as Flexion--offers visitors a host of computer programs that can copy DVDs into more appealing formats, together with detailed instructions and tips.

Why would anybody want to copy a DVD anyway, if not to take money from those in the movie industry?

Well, I can give you a personal example. My laptop has a removable DVD drive, which adds about a pound to the weight of the hump that grows out of my back when I’m on the road. If I could copy “Monty Python and the Holy Grail"--a DVD I happen to own--I could leave the DVD drive at home and still crack myself up on the airplane.

Of course, there is the little matter of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which Congress passed in 1998 in an effort to protect intellectual property in these times when digital duplication is easy and fast. The act states: “No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title.”

And last year, a California court found that simple possession of a tool that decrypts DVDs can be illegal. Why? It violates trade secrets held by the group with rights to the encryption scheme.

To be fair, piracy is a big problem. I’m a guy who types for a living, so I worship at the altar of copyright. But modern copyright laws--which originated in England in the early 18th century--are not intended to give intellectual property owners absolute and total control over their work. They provide legal recourse to pursue pirates.


The Digital Millennium Copyright Act--a law with so many problems I can’t fit them all into a single column--and the legal judgments based on it are erasing the rights of consumers. In the very near future, technology might be used to keep you from doing things such as photocopying a recipe from a magazine.

The digital copyright act pays lip service to protecting those sorts of rights. But the law’s basic function is to prevent the development and distribution of the tools people would need to exercise those rights. It’s like outlawing photocopiers because they can be used to duplicate books.

This is why a handy little tool such as the DVD Decrypter scares so many people in Hollywood and the regulatory community. To them, it’s as much of a threat as those plants in China churning out boxes of bootleg copies of “The Matrix.”


Dave Wilson is The Times’ personal technology columnist.


* Dave Wilson answers reader questions in Tech Q&A.; T10