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Banned DVD copiers get spam treatment

Film-copying software from 321 Studios, deemed illegal by the courts, is now showing up in in-boxes.

Missed your chance to get software--now deemed illegal--that will copy DVDs? Just check your in-box.

It's been just a few days since St. Louis start-up 321 Studios reluctantly complied with a court's order to remove the "ripping" feature, which allowed computer users to make copies of Hollywood studio films, from its popular line of software.

But already unsolicited bulk e-mail is showing up in in-boxes telling consumers that if they act fast, they can buy the last copies of the "banned" software.

"Your last chance to own this powerful software," read one ad CNET News.com received Monday from a Minnesota company that called itself ProDVDCopy.com. "Limited pieces available and then they're gone forever."

With such little fanfare, DVD copying software has left the realm of ordinary legal controversy and entered the exalted realm of herbal Viagra and Nigerian investment schemes.

But this e-mail advertising campaign carries a legal risk for its source. While it's not illegal under federal law to use DVD copying software, the same law that Hollywood used to stop 321 Studios from distributing its own software bars anyone from distributing software that breaks through digital copy-protection locks.

In her ruling late last month, federal Judge Susan Illston said that 321's software did run afoul of that law. Last Friday, 321 Studios said it was destroying "tens of thousands" of copies of its software as a result and releasing a new version that would not make backups of Hollywood films that were guarded against copying.

ProDVDCopy could not immediately be reached for comment. A call to a support line listed in the e-mail advertisement reached a company called "CrazyEight." The domain name was registered just two weeks ago, on the same day that Illston issued her ruling ordering 321 Studios to stop selling its software.

An attorney working with the Motion Picture Association of America said anybody unrelated to 321 Studios will not be covered by Illston's injunction against the software company, but that distributing the software remains illegal. Any distributor could be independently sued.

"Anybody who sells prohibited circumvention software is doing something unlawful," said Pat Benson, an attorney with Mitchell Silverberg & Knupp, the firm representing the MPAA.

A representative for 321 Studios could not immediately be reached for comment.

The last-minute sales tactics aren't likely to make much of a splash in the larger debate over DVD copying, however. An assortment of other DVD copying software packages remains on the market, although Hollywood studios have already sued several of these other distributors.

Other, noncommercial pieces of DVD copying software are widely available on the Internet. "Cracked" versions of 321 Studios software, or versions in which registration keys have been illicitly bypassed, have long been available on file-swapping networks such as Kazaa or eDonkey.