Next battle for control of digital content: RealDVD

The DVD ripping software goes to court Friday, with film studios arguing RealNetworks can't legally enable people to copy DVDs. Real says public has fair-use right.

The question of whether consumers will be given a legal means to make copies of DVDs could soon be answered in the San Francisco courtroom of U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel.

On Friday, Patel is set to begin hearing testimony in the RealDVD case . Last year, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) filed suit to stop the sale of RealNetwork's RealDVD software, which enables users to copy DVDs to their computer hard drive.

At the heart of the MPAA's lawsuit, the lobbying group for the six largest film studios, alleges that RealDVD violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) because it bypasses the copy protection built into DVDs. The DMCA prohibits companies from developing products that circumvent antipiracy protections. Real Networks denies that the encryption technology is ever cracked by RealDVD.

The studios argue that RealDVD technology will enable people to "rent, rip, and return." This is the terms used to describe when someone rents a DVD, copies the content on a hard drive, and returns the movie without ever paying for the unauthorized copy.

Patel's decision in the case could determine whether consumers will be given access to a legal method to copy movie discs. Real says consumers have the right to make personal copies of their DVDs. The MPAA says that consumers don't own the right to crack encryption to make copies.

But not everybody is convinced the film industry's efforts to halt the sale of RealDVD is to stop piracy. Fred von Lohmann, senior attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, notes that there are plenty of software tools available online--none of them legal--that enable people to copy CDs to a hard drive, and the MPAA isn't trying to stop them.

"The real question is if (encryption) hasn't prevented piracy, why is Hollywood still an enthusiast?" von Lohmann asked during a panel discussion on DRM recently. "It has much less to do with stopping piracy. It has much more to do with blocking innovation and preventing technology companies from disrupting business models."

Critics of the MPAA's case against Real allege the film industry is trying to retain absolute control over who builds devices that play movies and who doesn't.

On technology's side?
As for Real, it's unclear whether this is the best company for the pro-technology side to back.

The legal arguments are very similar to a case fought a decade ago between Streambox and Real. But then it was Real that was the being accused of trying to thwart innovation.

RealNetworks filed a lawsuit to block the sale of Streambox products, including the Steambox Ripper, which converted CDs into the popular MP3 format and into Windows Media. RealNetworks alleged in a lawsuit that Streambox had violated the DMCA and copyright infringement laws. Sound familiar?

The difference in those cases, says a Real spokesman, was that Streambox's technology cracked encryption thereby violating the DMCA. In the case of RealDVD, Real maintains that its software doesn't crack any protections. The companies eventually settled out of court with Real receiving monetary compensation.

Patel is expected to hear testimony from each side's witnesses. The only real drama could come when Real's combustible CEO Rob Glazer takes the stand. I'll be filing updates from the courthouse.

 

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