TechWorld

RealDVDs, surreal lawsuits

Well, that didn't take long. One day after RealNetworks releases its DVD copying software, lawsuits are filed. Who's right, who's wrong, and where do movie fans fit in? Cringely has some thoughts.

Like a Brachiosaur sinking into a tar pit, the recording industry as we've known it for the past 70 years is very nearly extinct. But unlike dinosaurs, the RIAA is trying to drag everyone else into the pit with it.

As a long-time print journalist, I actually feel their pain -- slightly. Newspapers and magazines are following CDs into the fossil fuel bin. Some, like InfoWorld, will successfully swap paper for pixels; most won't. Unless you own a blogging empire, it's not a good time to be a publisher. (But, with a few random exceptions, publications haven't been suing their customers for unfettered article swapping.)

The movie industry takes less heat for prosecuting alleged movie pirates, but it's no better than its reptilian cousins on the audio side. That's about to change. The MPAA will soon supplant the RIAA as Public Enemy No. 1 for people who believe that when you buy a copy of something, you actually own it.

Case in point: The dueling lawsuits between the movie studios and RealNetworks over the RealDVD software.

Interestingly, it was Real who sued first -- launching a preemptive strike by asking courts in Northern California to declare its DVD copying license legal. It only took a few hours for the studios to respond in kind. Greg Goeckner, general counsel and designated spokesmodel for the MPAA, churned out a few choice sound bites [PDF]:

RealNetworks' RealDVD should be called "StealDVD"... . The major motion picture studios have been making major investments in technologies that allow people to access entertainment in a variety of new and legal ways. This includes online video-on-demand, download-to-own, as well as legitimate digital copies for storage and use on computers and portable devices that are increasingly being made available on or with DVDs. Our industry will continue on this path because it gives consumers greater choices than ever.

Except, of course, the choice to take a movie you paid for and make decisions about how and where you watch it.

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The movie studios claim Real's software violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act because it circumvents copy protection technology built into DVDs. Actually, Real Networks licensed the software that lets them legally de-crypt and re-encrypt DVD content. If they're guilty of violating the DMCA, so are the manufacturers of every US$50 DVD player out there.

Essentially, Real's software allows you to take a DVD you own and make a legal copy of it on up to five machines. Unless you've got the hacking skills of a Jon lech Johansen, you can't share these copies with anybody else without handing them the drive you copied the movie to. And if you really wanted to swap movies illegally, there are, oh, about a gajillion easier ways to do it than by abusing RealDVD.

The MPAA's other argument: Customers will "rent, rip, and return" DVDs from Blockbuster or Netflix. So instead of spending $10 to $20 for the movie at Wal-Mart, you drop $5 at Blockbuster and make copies you can watch on your computer. Real admits that's possible (and illegal under the terms of its license). But doesn't that sound like an awful lot of trouble? If I really want to watch a movie over and over and over, I'll just keep putting it back in my Netflix queue (or simply not return it after I get it the first time). The people who still go to Blockbuster are probably the least likely to have heard of RealDVD, let alone use it.

You can argue legalities all day long (and, if you're a copyright attorney, make hundreds of dollars an hour doing it). But the fact is that the recording and film industries have been trying to kill off the concepts of fair use and the creative commons for decades. Today's copyright laws are written by industry lobbyists and handed over to friendly members of Congress for a rubber stamp. They do not represent the will of the people.