New DVD Copying Tool Enters Fray

Another DVD copying program has been released, but past legal action by Hollywood may threaten its time on the market.

Still, 123 Copy DVD has released a $20 product of the same name, claiming its tool is "the first product of its kind that allows the user to back up any movie while remaining compliant with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act." The 1998 law, designed to extend copyright protection to digital information, effectively outlaws most DVD copying.

Out of the box, the program is useful primarily for copying noncommercial content, such as your home videos. But once you've "updated" 123 (at 123's direction) so the program can copy any DVD, it's likely no longer compliant with the DMCA.

At the heart of the legal issues is the Content Scrambling System (CSS) encryption installed on almost all commercial DVDs. This encryption is intend to block piracy (or at least make it more difficult), but it also gets in the way of making legitimate copies, such as backups. Technically, CSS didn't prove to be much protection; software to break it appeared soon after the first encrypted DVDs hit the market. But the Digital Millennium Copyright Act outlaws the sale, distribution, and use of tools intended to break copy protection, regardless of whether they have legitimate uses.

123's Workaround

Initial tests find that 123 Copy DVD does the perfectly legal job of copying unencrypted DVDs well and is very easy to use.

But almost no unencrypted DVDs exist. 123's Senior Marketing Consultant Zach Van Doren describes the program as suitable for "copying home-produced movies [such as] a video of your birthday party." True enough; the one disc I successfully copied was of my daughter's ballet performance.

If you want to copy the latest Hollywood blockbuster (or even an old German silent), the legal issues get murkier. According to Van Doren, the 123 Copy DVD Web site provides links to third-party sites offering free decryption tools. In his judgment, the company is staying within the law.

"We're providing a product that's compliant [with the DMCA] and addresses a need," Van Doren says. If people want to alter the program to copy encrypted discs, "it's not our responsibility to police that action," he says.

This could prove problematic. On 123 Copy DVD's FAQ page, in answer to a question about the program's being unable to copy movies, is a link for an "update" to fix the problem. That link goes to a page formatted similarly to 123's site. Only its URL, booyakasha.biz, indicates it's not 123's site. On that page is a button to download a file named 123 Copy DVD update.exe. This update installed easily, and it supports copying of encrypted DVDs (like most movies).

123 Follows 321

Based on the experience of another developer of DVD copying software, 321 Studios, 123 treads on hazardous ground.

In February, a court order forced 321 Studios to stop selling software that contains a CSS decrypter. The company responded with an approach similar to 123's solution; it removed the decrypter from its product, DVD X Copy, and informed users of free decrypters available on the Internet. But in March, another court order required 321 to stop referring users to these third-party programs. The company has released a new version it maintains is compliant.

"We're enjoined from linking to a ripper," says Julia Bishop-Cross, a 321 Studios spokesperson.

Van Doren maintains that 123 walks the line and sells a legal product. "We've given users the ability to buy our compliant product and use it as they see fit," he says. "Specific to the 321 court hearing, it's compliant."

He also notes that the similarity in the names of the two companies is not intentional. Rather, his firm wants to emphasize that its program is "as easy as one, two, three," he says.

Bishop-Cross notes, "I've never heard of these people before. It seems like a fairly thin veiled effort to jump on our coattails."

Challenge Called Likely

However, 321's coattails also have courtroom experience. Several copyright experts are dubious that 123 will be able to market its product using its current approach for long.

"It sounds like these guys don't have a lawyer," says attorney Ken Hertz of Goldring Hertz & Lichtenstein, a specialist in copyright issues, of 123's approach. He is skeptical about the company's chances in a potential legal challenge to its technique of circumventing copyright. However, Hertz emphasizes he has not evaluated the software and bases his comment on a description of 123's software and approach.

The biggest threat to 123 Copy DVD and similar products is the Motion Picture Association of America, the industry organization that represents the studios in these digital copyright cases. In an e-mail statement, John G. Malcolm, MPAA senior vice president and director of worldwide antipiracy, claims to have "sued over a dozen persons/companies offering these packages and in every instance, every Court has deemed the product to be illegal and in violation of the DMCA."

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