Judge rules copying DVDs illegal

Legally copying DVDs through one company’s software may soon become a thing of the past due to a judge’s ruling against its creators.

California District Court Judge Susan Illston issued a ruling Friday in favor of a group of Hollywood studios who filed an injunction against the software company 321 Studios. The studios claimed the company’s DVD copying software illegally allowed consumers to break the encryption on commercial DVDs.

As a result of the ruling, 321 Studios must stop selling its DVD-X Copy and DVD Copy Plus software within seven days. Representatives for the company said they will appeal the ruling, and will seek a stay during this process to allow the software to be sold.

The case has drawn much interest from consumers and movie-industry executives alike, as it would serve as a test case to see the amount of leeway given to commercial DVD copying software in allowing consumers to copy their DVDs.

321 Studios initiated the legal battle in April 2002 when it sued the movie studios in an effort to prove the legality of the product.

At first, the studios only made threats that they would pursue legal action against 321 Studios for violating copyright laws.

Lawyers for the studios did not get serious about their legal pursuits until after the release of DVD-X Copy, which allows consumers to make exact copies of their DVDs. 321 Studios’ previously released Copy Plus only allowed for a lower-quality duplication to be made.

Feeling they needed to protect their studios’ intellectual property, lawyers for the studios filed a countersuit against the software maker.

A key argument raised by 321 Studios in regards to the countersuit was that its product allowed a consumer to legally make a copy of a DVD they had already purchased.

The company claimed that its product did not violate the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) because consumers could only make copies of original DVDs.

Among other provisions, the DMCA, which was passed by Congress in 1998, made it illegal for individuals to circumvent the copy-protection methods used by companies to ensure the safety of copyrighted material.

Responding to the claims of 321 Studios, lawyers for the Hollywood studios claimed the small software company was violating provisions of the DMCA because its product allowed consumers to have access to a copyright protection measure that allows DVD players to operate.

Content Scrambling System (CSS), as the technology is known, uses an encryption method that allows DVDs to only be viewed by players that have a special set of “keys” to decrypt the code found on most commercial DVDs. These “keys” are only provided to licensed companies for use in creating players or conducting research.

321 Studios’ products capitalized on a program developed by Norwegian teenager Jon Johansen called DeCSS, which allowed computers to decrypt DVDs even without a licensed “key.” This program essentially allowed users to break the encryption so they could make copies of their DVDs.

Illston stated in her ruling that 321 Studios’ programs were illegally using a set of keys that allow consumers to copy their DVDs. She said they had not been given permission to use the keys and were therefore guilty of illegally distributing a program that breaks the copy-protection method.

In her ruling on the case, Illston sided with the representatives from the Hollywood studios and said 321 Studios’ claims were unfounded due to the copyright infringement its products were facilitating.

“It is the technology itself at issue, not the uses to which the copyrighted material may be put,” Illston wrote. “The court finds that legal downstream use of the copyrighted material by customers is not a defense to the software manufacturer’s violation of the provisions (of copyright law).”

In looking at another section of the DMCA, Illston ruled against 321 Studios’ claim that the decryption technology was not the program’s primary function.

Illston found the program was partly used to circumvent the copy-protection method, and that was enough to find it violated the copyright law as a whole.

A number of consumer-rights groups said the ruling further places a restriction on a consumer’s right to fair use. Under the terms of fair use, consumers are allowed to make one backup copy of a DVD or CD they purchased.

Illston ruled that this right to fair use would not be violated if the programs were made illegal, because it only prohibits consumers from making digital copies.

She added that consumers are still allowed to make copies through other means, such as recording to a videocassette.

“As the First Amendment bears ‘less heavily’ in situations such as this, this Court determines that the burdens concededly imposed by the DMCA do not unconstitutionally impinge Fair Use rights,” Illuston wrote. “Although not all content on DVDs may be available in other forms, (those representing movie studios) have conceded that it is possible to copy the content in other ways than in an exact DVD copy.”

The ruling comes in light of 321 Studios’ claim of selling 1 million copies of its DVD-ripping products.

Under the terms of the ruling, the company will be forced to either remove the copy feature from its programs or stop selling them, period.

Company representatives said Monday they will continue selling the program without the built-in tool for descrambling movies. Users will have to find another source from which to download the utility.

Although the movie industry may have scored a victory through the courts, it still faces a long battle, as there are copies of 321 Studios’ software on over 1 million computers. The court may have ruled the software illegal, but it may be hard-pressed to stop consumers who have already purchased the software from utilizing it.

In addition, there are also various other programs that are not as popular as 321 Studios’ products that offer the same copying features. There is also the problem that programs such as DeCSS still offer the digital keys that were once protected by the movie industry.

Only time will tell how this ruling on 321 Studios’ DVD-copying software will affect the process by which consumers make backup copies of their DVDs.

The movie industry may have dealt a setback to one company, but it may be harder for them to stop the practice by numerous users who regularly produce backups through digital means.