But the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which lobbies for the major U.S. studios' political and financial interests, appears to be having success in convincing Web sites to remove the utility. Called DeCSS, the program can crack the encryption code in the DVD Content Scrambling System, allowing people to view digital movies through unauthorized players, such as computers running the Linux operating system. The MPAA argues that the program makes it easy to make illegal copies of DVDs.
The MPAA has sent cease and desist letters to numerous Web sites, citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which passed last October. The DMCA made it a crime to create, sell or distribute any technology that could be used to break copyright-protection devices.
"The MPAA takes seriously any unauthorized compromises of encryption technology," said the association's spokesman, Rich Taylor, who declined to comment further on the issue.
For now the MPAA is not going after people who actually use DeCSS to make illegal copies of DVDs because the law is not on its side--yet.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act did make it a crime to crack copyright-protection devices, with violators being charged up to $2,500 per act of circumvention. But that part of the law hasn't gone into effect yet, because it created exemptions for research, engineering and education that still have to be worked out by an interagency rule-making group.
"The rule making will begin shortly, and after that is when you could face criminal penalties," said Skip Lockwood, spokesman for the Digital Future Coalition, which wants to ensure that the new law doesn't infringe on educators' "fair use" rights to access copyrighted material.
In the meantime, many of the Web site operators the MPAA has contacted have complied and removed DeCSS, according to their sites--including DVD Utilities Network and a DVD information site in Norway where there is a similar law.
CNET Download.com also published the program. Almost 5,000 copies were downloaded before the site removed DeCSS yesterday in response to the MPAA's letter, the company confirmed. (CNET is the publisher of News.com.)
Some who published DeCSS said they don't promote piracy, and the MPAA shouldn't attack those who are building the market for DVDs and "rippers" that allow consumers to make legal copies of the discs in some cases.
"We all know that those rippers are available at 300 different sites over the Internet," the DVD Utilities Network stated on its site. "The MPAA should be more careful when attacking trendmakers and Webmasters."
Movie fans agree. Andrew Markham, who cracked the security on his DVD copy of "The Matrix," argues that he owns the disk and should be able to make copies of it for his own use.
"I don't think the MPAA has a right to threaten any of us for what we have been doing," he said. "Yes, I reverse-engineered 'The Matrix,' but I own the DVD. I paid $19.95 plus tax. Do organizations come after you if you make a copy of a CD to tape so you can listen to it in your car?"