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Ripping DVDs may never be the same again

Attorney Eric J. Sinrod explains the wider import of a Hollywood lawsuit aimed at preventing the ripping of DVDs to portable video players.

Just when you thought it might be safe to rip DVDs for use on your personal video player, the motion picture studios have filed a federal lawsuit in New York to put an end to such practices.

The studios certainly have financial and legal might behind them. But can they prevail?

In Paramount Pictures v. Load 'N Go Video, the motion picture studios brought legal action against a small company that loaded DVDs onto personal video players for its customers. According to the suit, Load 'N Go Video sold DVDs and iPods to its customers, and loaded the DVDs onto the iPods for customers who purchased both.

The motion picture studios assert that this practice violated the Copyright Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The studios say that before releasing their copyright works in DVD format, they employ an encryption-based DVD access control and copy prevention system that provides for protection of copyright content. According to the studios, Load 'N Go Video's practice of copying DVD content and then loading it onto the portable video players of its customers circumvents that copy protection system and thus violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The key point for Load 'N Go Video will be that its customers purchased both the DVDs and the portable video players.

DVDs, as noted by the studios, are 5-inch-wide optical discs that contain recorded material in digital form. DVD technology, they add, has substantially improved the clarity and quality of viewing of pre-recorded content, and thus presents a heightened risk of unauthorized reproduction and distribution of copyright material because the material can be digitally copied and transmitted repeatedly without quality degradation. It is for this reason that the motion picture studios use CSS (content scramble system) to prevent the unauthorized access to and reproduction and distribution of copyright works contained in DVDs.

As acknowledged by the complaint, the customers of Load 'N Go Video purchase DVDs and portable video players, and pay a charge to Load 'N Go Video for loading the DVDs onto the portable video players. The motion picture studios highlight that a license has not been granted to Load 'N Go Video to copy, distribute or exploit their copyright works or to circumvent the CSS.

All well and good in terms of the complaint filed by the motion picture studios, right? Well, perhaps--and perhaps not. While the motion picture studios make technically valid legal points within the four corners of their complaint, there is another legal point of view that likely will be espoused by Load 'N Go Video, assuming the case continues to move forward.

The key point for Load 'N Go Video will be that its customers purchased both the DVDs and the portable video players. Thus, Load 'N Go Video simply has saved the customers the time and hassle of loading the content they paid for on the portable video players they also purchased.

Let's take the studios' argument to its extreme. A buyer could be subject to legal liability for ripping purchased DVDs at home onto a purchased portable video player without either first seeking permission or purchasing the content again for specific use on the portable video player. One wonders whether a court would embrace such an argument.

Load 'N Go Video likely will assert that it has engaged in "fair use" for copyright purposes, and that such fair use trumps the claims of the motion picture studios under the Copyright Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

While Load 'N Go Video under these facts does have a defense to assert, one must keep in mind that the motion picture studios, like the music industry, have been very successful to date in seeking to protect their copyright works. Stay tuned to see how this case plays out.