How iTunes could become the ultimate DVD ripper--and why Apple won't let it

Real's forthcoming RealDVD program brings DVD ripping into the legal realm--so why can't Apple do the same with iTunes?

The iTunes Store: Apple's biggest incentive not to add DVD ripping. CNET

The first smattering of user reactions to RealNetworks' RealDVD software--which allows users to legally rip DVD movies to their PC hard drives--is less than enthusiastic, to say the least. The most telling comment: "Lack of mobile device support is the killer for me." Indeed, Real's product lets you move ripped movies between a total of five licensed PCs, but that assumes they're on a USB hard drive or some sort of flash media--thus far, there's no provision for network streaming, and no support for transferring the movies to portable devices."

Of course, when people say "portable media players," it's pretty much a synonym for "iPod." And while we could imagine Real eventually cutting deals to have devices that are compatible with its proprietary RealDVD format, it's a safe bet that Apple won't be among the partners. But the whole existence of RealDVD raises another question: if Real can release software that makes it quick, easy, and legal for users to rip their DVDs to their PC hard drive, why can't Apple?

Real's software is built on the legal precedent set by Kaleidescape's 2007 victory over the DVD Copy Control Association. Provided that you are backing up DVDs that you own, doing so for your own personal use, and keeping the copy-protection intact, Real's betting that it, too, can keep the lawyers at bay. Assuming the company is correct, though, that would seem to open the floodgates for other companies to release kosher DVD rippers.

Apple's iTunes already lets you rip audio CDs--indeed, the original iTunes tagline was "Rip, Mix, Burn." One would think adding DVD ripping to iTunes' bag of tricks wouldn't be that big of a challenge. Yes, like Real's solution, an Apple-ripped DVD would have to be locked into a proprietary, DRM-encoded iTunes-only format. But for most people, that'll be a feature, not a bug. You'd pop the disc into your PC, and iTunes would ask how you'd want it ripped: optimized for Apple TV streaming or optimized for iPod/iPhone (i.e. larger, high-res files or smaller downscaled ones). Once it was in iTunes, the files could be transferred within the entire Applesphere of products: the PC desktop (Windows and Mac iTunes libraries), the living room (Apple TV), and the portable realm (iPod and iPhone).

Now, the more digital-savvy among you are already saying, "I can do all of this already." Indeed, there are plenty of freeware/shareware programs that can rip your DVDs into an iTunes-optimized format, at the resolution of your choosing, where you can then do whatever you'd like with the file--including watch it on your PC, stream it to an Apple TV, or transfer it to an iPod or iPhone. But that's still a two-step process (at mininum) that requires a modicum of techie skills to get up and running. By contrast, building the process into iTunes would make it all but a one-click operation.

Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, I think you better keep those underground freeware rippers installed--I don't think we'll be seeing this feature added to iTunes anytime soon, for two reasons. First, it's unclear if Real's legal gambit will pay off. After all, precedents were made to be overturned, and even if their position isn't legally tenable, deep-pocketed movie studios could try to tie down Real in expensive litigation--enough to make other companies shy away from releasing similar DVD-ripping software. Secondly--and arguably more importantly--it's not really in Apple's financial interest to add DVD ripping to iTunes. The company wants to expand, not shrink, the demand for its online iTunes Store: Apple makes nothing if you rip a DVD, but it (and its studio partners) split anywhere from $3 to $15 per flick, depending if you rent or buy. The company isn't likely to kill off that revenue stream anytime soon.

I'd love to be wrong on this one. It'd be great if one of the big announcements at Tuesday's Apple event was the addition of DVD ripping to iTunes. But I think this one is going to remain strictly on the "in an ideal world" wish list.

What do you think: Will Apple ever add DVD ripping to iTunes? Or are you content with DIY solutions?

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