November 4, 1999 1:25 PM PST

DVD piracy program propagates on the Net

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Are Hollywood's fears about DVD piracy becoming reality?

That may be the case as a new software utility circulating on the Internet theoretically allows anyone with a DVD drive on her PC to make copies of DVD movies and store them on her hard drive or copy them to rewritable CD-ROM discs.

The program is reportedly a by-product of efforts to create a DVD software player for Linux-based computers. RealNetworks' Xing DVD player lacked the traditional encryption that protects most software DVD players, allowing developers to create software that descrambles the encryption on a DVD movie and compresses the file to a manageable size.

"We're certainly looking into the matter," said a RealNetworks spokesman, declining to comment further.

But while the program making the rounds of newsgroups and Internet sites has the potential to facilitate mass piracy, the logistics of copying and distributing digital movies are so complicated and unwieldy as to render the whole process "more trouble than its worth," according to one observer.

The program's illicit potential hardly marks the first threat of DVD piracy, industry observers say, even if it touches a sore spot. There has been a robust market for illegal copies of DVD movies in areas such as Eastern Europe and Asia for some time. And even if this new decryption technique is attractive to some large-scale replicators, it is unlikely to make a huge impact on the domestic market for digital movies, analysts say.

The process could work like this. After copying a DVD movie to one's hard drive, the replicated movie can then be "burned" to a CD using a rewritable CD drive, according to Ted Pine, an analyst with InfoTech Research. An infinite number of copies can be then made from that master.

Because of the degree of compression required to get a DVD movie onto the much smaller CD, however, the quality of the movie will not be that much better than a typical VHS tape, Pine said.

In fact, movies copied using this utility will lack any of the "bells and whistles" of legitimate DVD-ROMs. The utility essentially lifts the digital video stream but not any of the fancy DVD features that allow for the presentation of background information or searches for particular chapters, Pine explained.

"Not that it mitigates the significance of the problem, but the thing to consider is what exactly are you getting after putting your DVD through one of these 'rippers'? You're getting linear video content, but not the surround sound or interactive features," Pine said. Ripping is a common Internet term, usually applied to the MP3 music software, referring to the process of copying a title into a format that anyone can play.

"It sounds like more trouble than its worth," said Erik Corrigan, president of 12Cm Multimedia Corporation, a DVD production company. DVD movies take up about 5GB of data, unlike pirated MP3 music, which can be compressed to a few megabytes and is thus much easier to store and distribute, he said.

"So who's going to do this? Not you, and not me, and not even a casual MP3 user," Pine said. "The only person interested in infinite copies of a video CD output is a pirate."

The circulating software utility isn't the first technology enabling video piracy, according to Corrigan. But most piracy operations invest tens of millions of dollars in equipment, rather than downloading free software utilities.

Just a matter of time
Still, a crack in encryption technology was inevitable, said Jim Porter, an analyst at Disktrend.

"What did they expect? No matter what code they put out there to protect [content] it is still going to happen," he said "Any encryption program can eventually be broken."

DVD in certain respects presents a double-edged sword for the film and TV world. On one hand, DVD provides better resolution than videotape, which could drive demand. Revenue from rental and sales to homes, of course, have become a significant component for most studios.

On the other hand, the technology underlying DVD disks allows for the production of high-quality pirated versions, once the encryption hurdle is cleared. Reproduction can also be easier. Overall, this could make illegal copies more attractive to consumers.

"They aren't concerned about what happens in suburban neighborhoods. They are concerned about what happens in China, Asia, South America" and other markets where piracy, and the market for pirated products, have a stronger foothold, Porter said.

 

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