Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Are DVD rippers legal?

February 5, 2012

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2012, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2012, The Post-Standard

For the first time ever, TV-set ownership is starting to fall nationwide, according to the Nielsen research company.

That doesn't mean we're watching TV less. It's simply evidence of a trend most of you know about already: As we become more mobile -- using smartphones, tablets and thin-as-nickles laptops -- we're watching shows and movies away from the big TV set, on our mobile devices.

It's a trend that's not likely to stop. Leading the way is the snowballing popularity of DVD rippers, which turn movies into files you can play on a computer, iPad, iPod or similar device.

This week I'll explain the legal status of making copies of copyrighted movies. Next week I'll tell you how to use a ripper for Windows and Macs, and the following week I'll move the topic to TV shows, explaining how my wife and I watch television programs, both live and recorded, on our iPads.

Rippers are software programs that work with your computer's DVD drive. Instead of playing DVDs, rippers simply pull, or rip, video files off the disks. The software then squeezes the resulting video file from many gigabytes down to a few hundred megabytes, so it won't take up more space than necessary on your portable device.

But there's another thing rippers do that people don't talk about much. They disable copy protection. Commercial movies on DVD have various built-in techniques that are supposed to make copying impossible, but copy protection has been a complete failure. Hackers have defeated all the many techniques used over the years and have shared their methods with companies that make DVD rippers.

The movie industry has been trying to block this kind of copying for years, arguing that making a copy of a movie that is designed to be uncopyable amounts to piracy. But courts generally have been reluctant to take on this issue as long as movies are being copied for viewing on another device owned by the original purchaser -- and are not being given or sold to anyone else.

The real issue is that times have changed. The concepts of "home" and "office" no longer guarantee permanent, identifiable locations; we do our work and enjoy our entertainment literally anywhere we happen to be. DVDs can't be played on most of our portable devices -- the two laptops in my family don't even have DVD or CD drives, and of course our iPads and iPods don't have them, either -- and so the notion of preventing DVD owners from viewing their movies on a mobile device seems quaint.

Because of these changes, the movie industry is now going after real pirates instead of those of us who watch "Avatar" on our iPads. Kids who download and share video files ripped from movies are sometimes tracked down and sued, and of course commercial pirates who sell bootlegged DVDs by the millions are targets, too. But you and I can rest easy if we copy DVDs for our own viewing.

Next: Ripping software for Windows and Macs.