Should you be able to use products like RealDVD to make a copy of a DVD movie so you can back it up for safekeeping or store it on a laptop for easy playback without having to carry the disk anywhere you travel?
Not if you agree with the court ruling handed down this week against RealNetworks Inc., the makers of the RealDVD application that lets a user do exactly that. RealNetworks has been offering RealDVD since early 2008 as a way for people to legally make a copy of a DVD movie on a computer hard drive so they can play it without the disk. The software won't allow a user to make a DVD replica of the movie, but allows the creation of a copy on the hard drive. That was done to keep people from making illegal duplicates of the movies, all to conform to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the federal law that prohibits such duplication of DVD movies, including those that use Digital Rights Management (DRM) copy protection.
But that's apparently not enough protection for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which sued RealNetworks last September, alleging that the product allows users to illegally copy protected content. Even allowing a copy of a DVD movie to be placed on a user's computer hard drive, without the ability to burn the movie onto another DVD, was too much, the court ruled.
Now RealNetworks has suspended the sale of RealDVD on its Web site, but it certainly doesn't end the arguments over this very emotional issue. The thing is, there are plenty of free options available online to anyone who wants to make copies of DVD movies for their own use or to illegally copy and distribute them. The Internet is filled with how-to articles on doing just that, including this one from lifehacker.com.
This court ruling can't stop what's happening. And apparently, nothing has stopped it yet, not even the hated DRM, which in the last year has seen a reversal in some of its fortunes. Earlier this year, Apple began selling music without DRM protection in its iTunes store and others are following. Who would have guessed two years ago that that could have happened?
Here's what I think: yes, movie companies deserve to make a living from their movies and not lose money due to theft of their products by people who illegally copy and sell them. But at the same time, if I buy a DVD movie, and I own almost 600 DVD movies, it's MINE. I think I should be able to watch it, love it, hate it, give it to a friend, loan it out, or sell it used to someone else if I want to do so. I also think that if I want to copy it onto my laptop so I can travel and watch the movie on a plane or ship without having to have the physical DVD with me, that I should be able to do that, too. It's my damned DVD at that point, once I bought it.
Every business has risks. Car makers deal with upstart companies that make replacement parts far cheaper and undercut their parts sales. Computer makers have the same competition from others, as do makers of widgets, toasters, kitchen cabinets, and everything else. Life is a risk and so is business.
But that doesn't mean taking my rights away in using something that I bought and paid for. I'm sorry that there are people out there who illegally copy and sell DVD movies. But I'm not one of them. I am not a criminal. I am not a protected-content thief. And as an online journalist, believe me, I have the same kinds of concerns for what I produce, too.
This, though, is an issue of fair use and fairness. And I think we all have the right to fair use of the products we buy, even when there are some people who will abuse the privilege. There has to be a better way than infringing on the fair use rights of the rest of us.
(Todd R. Weiss is a freelance technology journalist who formerly wrote for Computerworld.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TechManTalking)