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DVDs and the big picture

Hollywood is suing yet another company for creating a product that allegedly violates copyright law. This time the defendant is RealNetworks, whose RealDVD software enables people to copy DVD movies onto their computers despite the discs’ electronic locks. RealDVD is illegal, the major studios claim in their lawsuit, because it violates the federal law against circumventing anti-copying technology. U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, who heard testimony this month, could decide the case as soon as today. But win or lose, RealNetworks isn’t the studios’ enemy. Instead, it’s offering a way to enhance a format that’s losing its luster.

DVD “ripping” software has been around for about a decade, and it remains widely available despite a series of successful studio lawsuits. RealDVD is notably different from the alternatives in that it creates copies that can’t be duplicated. That means they can’t be shared, so they’re more secure than the original DVDs. The studios contend that RealDVD is still a menace because people might use it to make copies of the discs they rent. But that’s absurd. Why would anyone who wants to make an illegal copy of a movie buy a hobbled program instead of one that has no such restrictions (and may be free)?

The studios and their technology partners waged a similarly head-shaking fight against Kaleidescape, whose inordinately expensive home video servers use military-grade security to keep their contents from being copied. Rather than reflexively battling such companies, the studios should be working with them to find a legitimate way for people to free the movies they’ve bought from their shiny plastic prisons. Consumers have already discovered how much more valuable their music collections are to them when stored digitally instead of on a bookshelf; it’s inevitable that they will do the same with their videos. And although the music industry hasn’t adapted well to the change, there’s no question that the digital revolution caused by MP3s has spurred demand and consumption.

Several of the major movie studios have started selling premium-priced DVDs and Blu-ray discs that include extra copies of the film that can be transferred onto a hard drive. But attempts to create an industrywide approach have been stymied by disputes among Hollywood, tech companies and equipment manufacturers. A more recent effort to develop standards for downloadable movie files could help consumers create digital libraries of new releases, but it overlooks the discs already gathering dust on their shelves. RealDVD may not be the right product either, but it addresses a demand that the studios can’t afford to ignore.

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