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New legal way to copy DVD movies

As you are probably aware, almost all commercial DVDs are embedded with software to prevent their being copied. That software, called “content scrambling system” (CSS), not only prevents users from duplicating their DVDs but also from copying a movie from the DVD to a PC or other device.

That’s a drag. If I buy a movie, I want to be able to enjoy it anytime and anywhere, whether on my TV, a PC, an iPod or other portable device. But for that to happen, I have to defeat the studios’ copy protection scheme.

There have been numerous programs that do that, including one called DeCSS from a Norwegian programmer named Jon Lech Johansen, who, while a teenager, was put on trial by Norwegian authorities for the “crime” of helping to write the software. He was eventually acquitted of the charges.

Here in the United States, a company called 321 Studios published software to allow PC users to make backup copies of DVDs, but it was sued by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and ultimately closed up shop after its product was found to be in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. That law prohibits producing or distributing technology to circumvent copy protection measures (known as Digital Rights Management) in copyrighted works.

But an Internet search for “copy protected DVDs” reveals other workarounds, including free programs like DVD Decrypter (still available but not updated since 1995) and DVDFab (based in China) that effectively defeat the copy protection on commercial DVDs. Such programs can be found online, but software that allows you to make copies of protected movies is not sold or distributed by well-known U.S. software publishers.

That’s about to change — sort of. Real Networks of RealPlayer and Rhapsody music service fame has just announced RealDVD, a program that lets you “legally” save the contents of protected DVDs to a PC hard drive. I said “sort of” because the copy you get has its own digital rights management that limits what you can do with it.

I’ve been testing a pre-release copy of the product and it pretty much works as advertised. I copied several movies from my DVD collection to my PC’s hard drive and, after putting the original DVDs back on my shelf, was able to play the movies on my PC. But because of restrictions engineered into the product, the movies can’t be played on other devices, such as an iPod, Apple TV, a PS 3 or even a Macintosh. Some other DVD ripping programs allow you to play movies on a variety of devices.

Copying a DVD with RealDVD is easy. You just run the program, insert the DVD and click on either Save or “Play and Save.” If you pick the latter, the video plays while it’s copied. Real Networks says it can take between 10 and 40 minutes to copy a movie, depending on the length of the movie and the speed of your DVD drive. It took me about a half hour for each of the three movies I copied. As you save, the program displays the percentage completed.

Playing a movie is even easier. The program displays cover art and a synopsis of the movie along with its rating and length. Simply click on the cover art of any movie you’ve copied and it begins to play just as if you had inserted the DVD, only faster because you don’t have to wait for a slow mechanical DVD drive to extract data from a plastic disc.

As with the physical disc, you can play the movie, select a scene or watch special features, such as deleted scenes or director’s commentary. Because the program makes an exact copy, there is no compression, so the folders that contain the movies can be quite large. Mine each came out to about 7.5 gigabytes.

Once you’ve saved a DVD to a disk, you can’t copy that file to another drive. But if you saved it to a removable external hard drive or memory device such as a USB thumb drive, you can watch it on up to 5 Windows PCs that you register to use with the program.

“It’s sort of equivalent to the rules of the road that were established in the music area,” Real Networks CEO Rob Glaser said in an interview.

Listen to Larry Magid’s CBS News interview with Real Networks CEO Rob Glaser

The program has some interesting extra features, including parental controls that allow you to password protect your film library so that anyone without the password — such as your children — can only watch videos that fall below a certain ratings such as PG-13, PG or R. If you need to take a break, the program remembers where you stopped and lets you resume from that point.

The program will have an introductory price of $29.95 when it becomes available later this month. There is a $19.95 charge for each of up to four additional licenses to use on other computers. It works with standard DVDs only. There is no support for Blu-ray.