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MPAA vs. RealNetworks

September 30, 2008 | 12:09 pm

Jon_healey_logo How funny is this?: The MPAA is suing RealNetworks for releasing a DVD copying program that replaces the ineffective DRM on Hollywood movie discs with a DRM that might actually work. Seems like the wrong people are bringing the lawsuit (download a copy) -- it should be the consumer foolish enough to have paid for a crippled piece of software. Nevertheless, the fact that RealDVD enables people to make a copy of standard-definition discs that they do not own, no matter how hobbled that copy may be, is enough for Hollywood to spring into action. That's because consumers might use RealDVD to make permanent copies of movies they borrow from the library or rent from Netflix, costing Hollywood untold billions of dollars. In theory, of course. 'Cause you know, people often run out to Target to buy a movie they just rented. Or something like that.

I'd planned to skip over the legal issues here, but I have to ask: What were Real's lawyers thinking?!? Didn't they read the DeCSS decisions? The 321 Studios ruling? Did they really bet the farm on the Kaleidescape case, which didn't involve the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (the Terminator of copyright laws)? Regardless of whether Real has a leg to stand on in court, the fact that a company like that would create a product like RealDVD speaks to the market opportunity. Increasingly, movie fans are becoming interested in storing their movie collections on a home computer, just as they've done with their music collections. Some studios are starting to accommodate this and include rippable files on their DVDs, but these, too, are wrapped in a DRM that can present compatibility issues for their customers. But the vast majority of movies released on disc can't be copied onto a PC, just as most downloadable movies from Hollywood can't be burned onto a DVD that can be played on a standard DVD player. The IT industry has been pushing a proposal that would enable consumers to make a limited number of copies of the discs they buy, without fueling a runaway rent-and-rip problem, but the studios have balked at the details. Sigh. Meanwhile, a growing number of consumers resort to illegal copying programs that place no limits on ripped files. Eventually, Hollywood is going to have to offer a solution that works easily for consumers, or they'll keep turning to companies like RealNetworks for help.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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