In a pre-emptive strike to stave off the wrath of the movie industry, a small software company is asking a federal judge for permission to sell and market its product for copying DVDs.
In a complaint filed Monday in federal court in San Francisco, 321 Studios asked the court to declare that its DVD Copy Plus program does not violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
"This lawsuit involves the ability of a small Internet company to market and sell an instruction manual and bundled computer software that teaches legal owners of DVD movies to make legitimate backup copies of the contents of a DVD for their own personal use," the suit states.
The lawsuit underscores growing tension between consumer-electronics makers and copyright owners over digital technologies. The courts have long recognized the right of consumers to make personal copies of music and television shows, and protected manufacturers from liability stemming from products such as VCRs, tape decks and MP3 players. But the movie and recording industries have increasingly sought to make such copying more difficult through encryption technology and tough new laws, including the DMCA.
Those efforts have sparked complaints that legitimate copying, such as making backups and computer copies of legally purchased CDs, may progressively be roped off.
According to Monday's complaint, the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents major Hollywood studios, has been quoted in newspaper articles as threatening to sue 321 to stop it from distributing DVD Copy Plus, saying it may violate the DMCA. The group also has asked the FBI to investigate 321's activities, the court filing said.
The DMCA prohibits making available technology that can crack copy protections, a provision some developers fear will require them to run new technology by judges and lawyers before selling it.
321 President Robert Moore said he didn't know about the DMCA when he started the company as a hobby. But as he learned more about it, he decided to pursue litigation.
"This was much too important of an issue to let drop," he said. "This law needed to be challenged. There is something wrong with telling the American public that they can't make a backup copy of something they own."
Because new technologies make it so easy to duplicate and distribute digital material, the movie industry has been aggressively pursuing some companies and programmers in an attempt to stamp out piracy.
321 said its DVD Copy Plus software, which was released last fall, makes a lower-quality copy of the DVD and does not back up the entire DVD, just the film itself. The company said the software is designed to help people make backup copies of DVDs in case they succumb to problems such as scratches and heat damage.
The company is not seeking damages, just permission to sell its product. The MPAA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The idea behind 321's suit is similar to that of a complaint filed by Princeton professor Ed Felten. Felten, too, had received threatening letters from the entertainment industry--in his case, the Recording Industry Association of America--which said his upcoming speech about cracking copy protections would violate the DMCA. Felten filed a complaint seeking permission to give future speeches about his findings, but the suit was later dismissed.
In a separate case, Russian software company ElcomSoft is facing criminal charges that it violated the DMCA by making available technology that can crack copy protections on Adobe e-books.