RealDVD lets you rip video from a disk quickly and easily. And so far, it's legal
I'm on another boring transcontinental flight. They're showing Prince Caspian, but I already suffered through that on my last trip. Not to worry. I've got my lightweight laptop in hand, and although it lacks a DVD drive, the hard disk is loaded with a season's worth of HBO's The Wire and a selection of movies from my DVD library.
This is a bigger deal than you might think. While there are other ways to watch movies on the go, including bringing disks or using a download service such as the iTunes Store, they are all flawed. The new alternative, which I used on my flight, is software called RealDVD, from RealNetworks (RNWK) ($30 introductory price; 30-day free trial available). The program makes it easy to rip video from a disk in just a few minutes. And—until someone says otherwise—it's legal. There are some irksome restrictions, but that's the price of being able to copy DVDs at all.
If you have a teenager at home, you know that ripping DVDs isn't new. But until now the programs that do it have been distinctly user-unfriendly. The one exception, a product called DVD X Copy from 321 Studios, was forced off the market by a film industry lawsuit in 2004. Indeed, DVD copying is illegal in many countries. In the U.S., courts consider it a copyright infringement to distribute software that circumvents the "content scramble system" (CSS) used to protect DVDs.
The studios may yet go after RealDVD, but Real has jumped through a lot of hoops to avoid that fate. This is where the annoying restrictions come in. Real not only retains the CSS encryption—a critical legal technicality—but also adds an additional layer of protection. Once you have copied a DVD to a hard drive, you cannot move the contents to another drive. You can save your copy to an external drive, but it cannot be shared by more than five Windows computers. (In theory, you could also use a USB memory key, but the huge files of up to 9 gigabytes per DVD make that impractical.) Each extra PC must have its own copy of RealDVD, which costs $20 each for your second or third computer—up to five in all. Unlike illegally ripped copies, you cannot create a separate version and watch it on an iPod or other handheld player.
There are, of course, legal alternatives to RealDVD. A number of services sell or rent movies and TV shows that can be downloaded to a computer and watched at your convenience. But only a fraction of all DVDs are available online, and the downloads lack the extra features, such as directors' commentaries, found on DVDs. Besides, it's ridiculous to have to pay again for a title you already own. If your laptop has a player, you could simply take DVDs along, but you risk losing or damaging the disks.
RealDVD warns you that the software may be used only to copy disks you own. As a practical matter, though, there is nothing but your conscience to stop you from recording a copy of a DVD rented from Netflix (NFLX) or the local video store or borrowed from a friend. That fact might be the basis for legal action against RealDVD. Company officials say their talks with the studios have been encouraging but noncommittal. I hope that, for once, the studios will see new technology as an opportunity rather than a threat.
In the long run, I believe consumers want to be able to pay for content once and get to watch it where, when, and how they wish. That's certainly been my goal for a long time. RealDVD, with its many industry-imposed restrictions, doesn't get us there, but it does move in the right direction.