Can I Really Copy DVDs?

Everybody’s e-mail inbox is awash with spam offering software that can “copy any DVD movie to a CD!!!” Aren’t DVDs copy-proof? Do the spammers’ $39.95 rip-and-burn programs really work?

Yes, sort of. When on the level, the programs are de-encryption tools that defeat the DVD security protocol, known as the Content Scrambling System. In 1999, a hacking group cracked CSS and wrote the first program, DeCSS, to remove DVD copy protection. Newer DVDs attempt to best the program, but hackers remain a step ahead—many of the new rippers work by pretending to play back the DVD, which exposes the encryption key.

DVD ripper programs use that encryption key to extract the movie and put an unprotected version of it on your PC’s hard drive. The file is then compressed using the MPEG standard, much in the same way an audio CD track is converted into an MP3. Once squeezed, the data can be burned onto a Video CD, which holds about 80 minutes worth of entertainment; multi-hour epics like Scarface must be parceled out over multiple discs.

Most modern DVD players are compatible with the VCD format, which is popular in China and other countries. But consider VCD’s drawbacks. Because the data is compressed, the picture and sound of a VCD suffers: The images are on a par with those delivered by analog cable television. VCDs burned from DVDs also lack the viewing options so popular on DVDs; if you burned Ronin with the alternate, downbeat ending, you can’t toggle back to the original finale you could on a DVD.

A note to law-abiding cineastes: Using a DVD ripper violates Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which forbids the circumvention of technological measures that control access to copyrighted works. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has interpreted Section 1201 rather broadly, ruling that it prohibits the creation of backup copies of any encrypted media. Copyright law is still in flux—the upcoming Supreme Court case Eldred v. Ashcroft, which will help define Congress’ power to alter copyright, should clear things up a bit—but for the moment keep this couplet in mind: Buying software from spammers could lead to the slammer.

Explainer thanks Wendy Seltzer of St. John’s University School of Law, Mike Hudack of Sixgirls.org, and Jessica Litman of Wayne State University Law School.

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