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MPAA: RealNetworks could strip DVD copy limits

Legal proceedings resume in Real DVD case, with attention on how easy would it be to remove the limit on the number of computers licensed to play a film.

Updated at 12:56 p.m. PDT to clarify MPAA's arguments.

The film industry in court Tuesday tried to show a federal judge that the software known as RealDVD entrusts its creator, RealNetworks, with the job of protecting digital film copies from piracy.

U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel resumed hearing testimony in the legal dispute between the largest movie studios and Real. The Motion Picture Association of America claimed in a lawsuit filed last fall that the company's RealDVD software, which enables people to copy DVDs and store them to a hard drive, violates copyright law. Patel halted sales of RealDVD last fall.

Robert Schumann, an expert on securing DVDs who was called to testify by the MPAA, told Patel that RealDVD introduces a set of copy protection schemes for the copies made by RealDVD. The software's copy controls can be altered or removed all together from Real's servers in the form of a software update. Schumann told Patel that those limits could easily be removed all together by buy removing just one line of code.

There is no reason for Real to do such a thing. Schumann was responding to questions from Rohit Singla, an MPAA attorney, who asked Schumann about hypothetical situations apparently to illustrate that Real had, without authorization, assumed the responsibility of protecting the film industry's content and that posed certain risks to Hollywood.

First, Schumann testified that an unlimited number of film copies can be made from a single DVD using RealDVD.

Schumann demonstrated that film copies could be made and moved to a thumb drive. Schumann told the judge, however, that RealDVD's copy protections would limit any copy of the film to play on a maximum of five devices licensed presumably by a RealDVD owner. RealNetworks has long argued that the encryption technology it uses to protect digital copies made by RealDVD is superior to what's found on DVDs.

Singla asked Schumann how easy would it be for Real to change the limit on the number of computers licensed to play a film. Could Real, for example, issue a software update that could raise the limit from five to 50 computers or to remove the limits completely? Schumann said the changes would be simple.

Singla then asked what it would take for Real to enable copies to play on millions of different devices or any device. Schumann said the change would require "essentially removing one line of code." Such a scenario, regardless of how unlikely, could result in the distribution of an unlimited number of unauthorized film copies.

Real attorneys tried to stop the line of questioning and raised an objection, arguing that discussing what RealDVD could do was irrelevant and asked the judge to stick to with RealDVD's current capabilities. But Patel wanted to hear the testimony and overruled the objection.

The MPAA continues to drum the idea that RealDVD is a piracy threat. Throughout the dispute, Patel has been most animated when discussing copyright issues and unauthorized copies. When she ruled to keep a temporary restraining order in place in October, she worried that RealDVD could lead to mass copying saying "it's impossible to bring back copies once they're out in the market."

The question of whether RealDVD is a security threat to the film industry remains at issue, though it's generally recognized that there is a glut of software available online that enables anyone to make unauthorized copies of DVDs. The question that appears to have the most relevance to the case is whether RealDVD circumvents the encryption technology found on DVDs. A circumvention would violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Schumann was the first person to testify in Tuesday's hearing and has not yet had a chance to respond. The first witness expected to testify for Real, sometimes later in the afternoon, will be the company's outspoken CEO, Rob Glaser.

Note: I'll be filing updates throughout the hearing.