Make Exact Backup Copies of Your DVDs

Picture this scenario: you go to retrieve your DVD copy of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory from its protective case because your son or daughter wants to watch it for the 437th time. You remove the DVD only to find it scratched and just a little bit sticky from the jam-covered fingers that last handled it. Sound familiar?

In the past, we've talked about using an application such as HandBrake 0.9.4 to rip your DVDs to watch on an iPhone or Apple TV, and covered some of the frequently asked questions about DVD ripping. But what if you want to make an exact copy of a physical DVD to use as your 'viewing' disc and keep the original safely on the shelf? Or how about if you've received (or created) a DVD of home movies or a wedding and want to duplicate it for family members. Here's what you need to know.

Homemade DVDs

If you want to make copies of that DVD your cousin sent you of her son's bar mitzvah (or any other unprotected DVD), the process is relatively simple. Insert the DVD into your Mac's optical drive and launch OS X's built-in Disk Utility app (found in the Applications/Utilities).

Click the New Image button at the top, select the DVD in the dialog box that appears, and in the Image Format pop-up menu choose DVD/CD Master. Pick a name and destination, and click Save. After a while, you'll have an image file with a .cdr extension. That disc image contains an exact copy of your DVD, which you can backup on an external hard drive for later use.

To burn that image as a DVD that you can watch in a standard DVD player, launch Disk Utility and you should see the image listed on the lefthand side. If so, click the image name, and then click the Burn button at the top. If you don't see it listed, click the Burn button first, then navigate to the image's location, select it, and click Burn.

In either case, Disk Utility will then prompt you to insert a blank DVD (if the original was a dual-layer DVD, you'll need a dual-layer blank DVD for it to work). If you want to adjust any of the options (including what Disk Utility should do when it's done burning) click the blue triangle button to expose those options. When you're set, click the Burn button. When it's done, the disc should play on your computer on set-top DVD player. (A note on DVD media: I've found DVD-R discs to work well for single layer movies, and DVD+R good for dual-layer movies, when it comes to DVD player compatibility. But it's always best to test your burned DVD afterwards to make sure it plays as expected.)

Commercial DVDs

It's a bit trickier when dealing with Hollywood movies. The same copy-protection that a utility must overcome in order to convert DVDs to other formats also applies here--you can't pop in your favorite movie create a disc image as described above. And a tool such as HandBrake won't work either, since you don't want to transcode elements of the DVD into another type of file, you want an unencrypted version of what's on the DVD. One application that can strip the copy protection from a DVD and leave you with an unencrypted VIDEO_TS folder is the $20 RipIt. Another option is the free Fairmount, which works in conjunction with the free VLC media player to decrypt a mounted DVD in the Finder. Once the (long) process is complete, you can copy the decrypted VIDEO_TS to your desktop. (MacTheRipper can also do the job, but getting a copy can be a convoluted and frustrating undertaking.)

[Before continuing, let me stress that I'm talking about making backup copies of DVDs you've purchased. This isn't about renting a movie from Netflix and cloning the DVD for your collection. Even so, the legal aspects of creating backup copies of your DVDs can be messy (and I'm not a lawyer). U.S. law (compliments of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) makes it illegal to create software that defeats copy-protection schemes, but not necessarily to use that software. The Little App Factory, makers of RipIt, is based in Australia. Still, it's possible that software may come and go without much notice, so be warned.]

Now that you have an unencrypted VIDEO_TS folder, you have several options. If you own a recent version of Roxio's $100 Toast Titanium or $50 Popcorn, you can select the Video tab (Toast) or Copy tab (Popcorn) and click the VIDEO_TS Folders option. Drag your VIDEO_TS folder into the window, insert a blank DVD, click the big red Record button, and wait for your DVD burner to spit out an exact copy.

[If your original DVD was a dual-layer disc (as are most of today's movie DVDs) and you don't have dual-layer media (or don't have a dual-layer-capable DVD burner) you can use Roxio's built-in Fit-To-DVD Video Compression feature to shrink the video to fit on a regular DVD. This either requires you to remove some elements (extras, additional audio tracks, and so on), compress the video (with quality loss), or some combination of the two. What you'll get, therefore, won't be an exact copy of your original.]

If you don't have either of those apps, you can download the free DVD Imager 1.6, which can create a DVD image from your VIDEO_TS folder. Unfortunately, it doesn't work with Snow Leopard. If you have an older version of OS X, it's the easiest way to create a disc image.

If you're running Snow Leopard, you can accomplish the same result--also for free--but it involves a bit of Terminal magic. There are a few methods that work, but I found an easy one that requires very little typing of Unix commands. First, create a new folder on the desktop and name it the title of the movie, using only upper-case characters and no spaces (underscores are fine) for compatibility reasons. (For example, for the Monty Python and the Holy Grail DVD I ripped, I named the folder HOLY_GRAIL.) Now put the entire VIDEO_TS folder into the folder you just created.

Then launch Terminal (you'll find it in the same Utilities folder as Disk Utility). Type cd desktop to change the directory to your desktop, where your folder resides, which will make your typing easier in the next part. Now type the following on a single line--where FOLDER_NAME is the name of the folder you created--and press enter (you can even copy the folder name in the Finder and paste it where required to make typing even easier):

hdiutil makehybrid -o FOLDER_NAME FOLDER_NAME -udf

It will now take several minutes for your disc image to be created. But when it's done, you can burn the .iso image in the exact same way as described in the homemade DVD section (launch Disk Utility, click Burn, select the disc image in the Finder, and follow the directions to burn your DVD). You can also save the image you created if you ever need to burn another copy.

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