This is a guest blog post by Sherman Nicodemus. This is my second post in a series I’m sharing on “Moving at the Speed of Creativity” this week. If you have questions about this post I’ll be glad to answer them via comments here.

The advent of digital encoding technologies has brought a revolution to the entertainment and media industries, and afforded a wealth of new media consumptive options for consumers. In his song and music video, “Welcome to the Future,” country singer Brad Paisley reflects on how, in his childhood, he dreamed of watching TV in the car on an eight hour road trip. This dream is a reality today thanks to the proliferation of iPods and other portable media players, as well as the availability of commercial audio and video titles in electronic formats.

The landscape of consumer media options continues to be fraught with legal battles, however, in large part because of media conglomerates’ desires to maintain control over the “intellectual property” they produce, license, and sell. Entertainment artists and industry workers also share a stake in maintaining control and therefore profitability for media file licensing.

When it comes to the legality of making copies of DVD movies a consumer in the United States has legally purchased, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) as well as the DVD Copy Control Association (DVD CCA) are two fronts from which companies and organizations have challenged the legality of copying, archiving, and compressing DVDs. In her October 2008 article, “DVD Ripping: The Latest on the Legal Front,” Julie Jacobson opens with the following statement:

Here’s where we stand today on the legality of DVD ripping: We’re not quite sure if it’s legal.

The English WikiPedia defines “ripping” as:

…the process of copying audio or video content to a hard disk, typically from removable media. The word is used to refer to all forms of media. Despite the name, neither the media nor the data in it is damaged after extraction.

The article further explains in the “legality” section:

On the whole, it is legal for an individual in the United States to make a copy of media he/she owns for his/her own personal use. For instance, making a copy of a personally-owned audio CD for transfer to an MP3 player for that person’s personal use would be legal.
In the case where media contents are protected using some effective copy protection scheme, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it illegal to circumvent that copy protection scheme. This law makes it illegal to rip most commercial DVDs as they are typically protected by CSS encryption.

The legality of DVD ripping depends on your location, however. Again according to the WikiPedia article:

In countries such as Spain, anyone is allowed to make a private copy of a copyrighted material for oneself, and the source copy does not even have to be legal. Making copies for other people, however, is forbidden if done for profit. This is also true for Sweden. In Australia, copies of any legally purchased music may be made by its owner, as long as it is not distributed to others and its use remains personal. In the United Kingdom, making a private copy of copyrighted media without the copyright owner’s consent is illegal: this includes ripping music from a CD to a computer or digital music player. The UK government has made proposals to allow people to make copies of music for personal use.

This is a confusing state of affairs.

The English WikiPedia article for “DVD Ripper” offers the following definition:

A DVD ripper is a software program that facilitates copying the content of a DVD to a hard disk drive. They are mainly used to transfer video on DVDs to different formats, to edit or back up DVD content, and for converting DVD video for playback on media players and mobile devices. Some DVD rippers include additional features, such as the ability to decrypt DVDs, remove copy preventions and make disks unrestricted and region-free.

The article also includes a detailed table listing and comparing different versions of DVD ripping software.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) provides a concise overview of the legal and technical issues at stake in DVD ripping on its page, “Hollywood v. DVD.” The page (as of 14 March 2010) states:

With billions sold, the DVD remains the principle way that millions of consumers experience digital video. Yet Hollywood has, from the birth of this format, imposed unprecedented restrictions on what customers can do with the DVDs they own.

Hollywood has argued in lawsuits and before policy-makers around the world that it is always illegal to make a digital copy (“rip”) of a DVD. Even if you own it, even if you’re trying to make a personal copy so that your children don’t scratch the original, even if you want to make a copy to watch on your iPod, even if you want to skip those annoying “unskippable” commercials at the beginning.

Hollywood has also sued companies that try to provide DVD owners with the same kinds of innovations that we take for granted with CDs—such as a “DVD jukebox” that lets you watch your own DVDs around your own house from a central home media server.

The difference between DVDs and previous media formats—like the CD—is the CSS encryption system used to “scramble” the digital bits on the DVD. Thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a federal law passed a the behest of Hollywood, consumers enjoy fewer rights with respect to copyrighted works that are protected by “technical protection measures” (aka DRM) than they did with prior formats. Congress was told that the DMCA was necessary to prevent “digital piracy” online, but the use of anti-consumer DRM has been a total failure at preventing “piracy.” Instead, the legacy of the DMCA has been to penalize legitimate consumers and impair competition and innovation. So Hollywood today clings to DRM not because it has any impact on “piracy,” but because it allows the movie studios to dictate the features and innovations that legitimate companies can deliver to legitimate consumers.

The bottom line for consumers today in the United States is that intellectual property / copyright law forces the legal REPURCHASE of media which was originally bought in CD and/or DVD formats, and the consumer wants in a computer / mobile media player format. This was affirmed by Greg Sandoval’s March 3, 2010, article for CNET, “RealNetworks surrenders in RealDVD case.” Greg wrote:

The MPAA filed suit to stop the sale of RealDVD, a software that hands users the ability to copy and store films to a hard drive.
From the outset of Real’s struggle, the company appeared to be on shaky ground. Real argued that consumers possessed the right to backup their DVDs, just as they have a right to make a copy of their songs for personal use. Real told the court the company was just trying to offer consumers the means to do that and that they had a fair use right to do that.
But after hearing initial arguments from Real and the studios, Patel [the judge in the case] quickly slapped a preliminary injunction that prevented sales of RealDVD. Things went down hill from there.
Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates for tech companies and Internet users, defended Real’s pursuit of the case. He said Real could have provided real benefit to consumers, if not with RealDVD, then eventually with a DVD player that would have incorporated some of the software’s copying abilities. Real was working on a player, codenamed Facet, which would have created copies of DVDs and stored more than 70 films on its hard drive.

“(Real’s testimony) made it clear that Real was out to deliver to consumers a product that people wanted to see,” von Lohmann said. “I think the message this sends is if you get into the business of enabling consumers to do with DVDs what they’ve long done with CDs, you’ll get sued out of the business. I think that’s bad news for consumers. What that means is that if you want to create a digital back-up of your movies, you have to pay for that a second time on iTunes.”

The EFF quoted part of this article in their March 3rd “In The News” post, “RealNetworks surrenders in RealDVD case.”

Now that we’ve explored some of the legal perspectives on DVD ripping, I’d like to highlight two functional solutions for DVD ripping. Bear in mind, as explained above, that the legality of using these software programs depends on your geography.

Handbrake is:

…an open source, GPL-licensed, multiplatform, multithreaded vio trancoder, available for Mac OS X, Linux, and Windows.

Somewhat ironically, I first learned about Handbrake when visiting an Apple Store and asking about software options for encoding DVDs. Of course the Apple Store wasn’t and isn’t selling Handbrake: as a GPL-licensed program, it is free and legally must remain free: No one can sell it. I’ve used Handbrake software on my Mac to rip and compress numerous DVD movies. The program allows users to select the target platform for the encoded / compressed MP4 video version. Most of my Handbrake-encoded movies are around 600 MB in size, but some (like the two part disc series in the 2+ hour movie LOTR – ROTK) are over 1 GB.

Handbrake is great, but some DVD movie creators have become more sophisticated in their use of “Content Scramble System” methods in encoding DVDs so Handbrake cannot (at present) properly rip them. One example is the DVD of WALL-E. My initial attempt to rip WAL-E with Handbrake appeared to succeed, but the order of the encoded scenes was mixed up. To remedy this, I used the commercially available RipIt application (sold by the little app factory) to create a full-resolution backup of my purchased DVD. Then, I used Handbrake to create a compressed MP4 version playable on iPhones and iPods.

Hopefully copyright laws in the United States, the UK, and other countries will change to legally permit DVD and CD purchasers to make THEIR OWN archive copies of media files. Until then (and even afterwards) we’ll likely see continued legal fights by organizations and media conglomerates to prevent commercial, copy-protected DVD and CD ripping by consumers wanting to avoid the re-purchase of their movies and songs to realize Brad Paisley’s vision in, “Welcome to the Future.”

For more about these issues, check out The Digital Freedom Campaign’s website on

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3 Responses to Ripping Personally Owned DVDs for iPhone or iPod Viewing: Legal and Technical Perspectives

  1. RustyBadger says:

    It’s interesting to see the fight between the two conflicting laws: Copyright Act on one hand, and DMCA on the other. There is no real contest- in a case involving personal use (ie, backing up a legally-owned copy of media for personal use), the Copyright Act will win every time. Unfortunately, the media cartels won in the States by getting the DMCA passed without the politicians catching the Catch-22 in it.

    We’re fortunate in Canada, as we still have no restrictions like the DMCA (which gets us a lot of nasty press from the RIAA and MPAA imbiciles), so copying for personal use is not even a grey area- it’s protected in law. Our Copyright Act even specifically gives us the right to copy music we don’t own, for personal use- in return, we pay a 20-cent levy on every blank CD or DVD we purchase (amounting to over $30,000,000 a year in royalties paid to musicians).

    Unfortunately, American lobbyists are pushing hard for DMCA-like terms in the ACTA which is being negotiated right now. If those are approved, it will be even harder for individuals to legally format-shift their content.

  2. […] yesterday's post, "Ripping Personally Owned DVDs for iPhone or iPod Viewing: Legal and Technical Perspectives," I reflected on the irony that "legality" when it comes to creating backups or compressed versions […]

  3. JB says:

    CSS (Content Scramble System) is just the data encryption and drive authentication mechanism used on DVDs. The problems you ran in to with Wall-E are actually separate and independent methods based on purposely inserting errors into the UDF file system tables or actual physical disc errors during publishing and pressing. This may be what is called ARccOs or Ripguard. In many cases, these ‘protections’ are violations of the DVD specification. (I’ve actually read the official DVD spec). It seems that it shouldn’t be possible to market and sell these discs as “DVD” if they don’t follow the DVD specification. This may also be why these dvds do not play back properly on some DVD hardware. If you look at the back of DVD packaging, you will see a little symbol usually in the bottom right hand corner of the disc case showing a flattened disc with “DVD” over the top, and “Video” underneath. This would seem to indicate that the disc follows the standard. Interestingly, on some Disney discs, you will see that the symbol is slightly different. It says “Disney DVD”, which I would think indicates they are not following the standard- and don’t even claim to be?

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