December 20, 2002 9:21 AM PST

Hollywood targets DVD-copying upstart

The movie industry is training its legal guns on a new target: a small start-up that lets people make copies of their DVDs.

On Thursday, seven major movie studios filed a countersuit


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in federal court in San Francisco, claiming that 321 Studios is violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) by selling its DVD Copy Plus and DVD-Xcopy programs.

The studios filed the claim in response to 321 Studios, which in April took the unusual step of asking a federal court to declare its copying products legitimate because they would allow people to make personal copies of DVDs they already own--a process the company claimed is allowed under a doctrine known as fair use. 321's president said at the time that he asked for the legal opinion after reading press accounts in which the studios threatened the company.

The studios did not follow through on those threats until Thursday, a few weeks after 321 Studios released DVD-Xcopy, which allows people to make an exact duplicate of a DVD. Copy Plus, which went on sale last year, results in lower-quality copies.

In the complaint, the studios said that 321 representatives "market and sell this illegal software and exhort and encourage the copying of (the studios' encryption-protected) copyrighted motion pictures that are embodied on DVDs." The studios claimed 321's actions caused them "grave and irreparable harm."

The studios are seeking an injunction prohibiting 321 from selling or manufacturing its DVD-copying products and are asking the court to order the company to turn over to the studios "all computer disks, computer drives and other physical objects embodying all, or any part," of DVD Copy Plus and DVD-Xcopy so they can be destroyed.

The move highlights increasing concerns among copyright owners that they will forever lose control of the material they create because it is so easy to copy and distribute using digital technology. This particular suit signals studios' worries about the growing sophistication of DVD-copying tools, which are making it increasingly easier and faster to copy high-quality DVDs. 321 Studios advertises its products as a one-click way to make a perfect reproduction of a DVD in about an hour.

In response to improved software, many companies, especially those that sell movies and music, are increasingly--and for the most part successfully--turning to the courts for relief under the DMCA. The law makes it illegal to offer software that can be used to crack copyright protections, even if the person using the software plans to do something legal such as make a personal copy.

In a major case cited in the studios' claim against 321, federal courts ruled that posting and linking to DVD-encryption cracking code known as DeCSS violated the DMCA.

In that case, also brought by movie studios, judges ordered a publisher to stop providing links to DeCSS. The studios claim 321 uses software similar to DeCSS to strip away copy protections so people can make unauthorized duplications of DVDs.

However, 321 claims that its products are designed so that people can make copies of DVDs they already own, in much the same way they can duplicate videotapes. One of the company's Web sites is called CopyMyDVD.com, and 321 said in its original suit that its product "teaches legal owners of DVD movies to make legitimate backup copies of the contents of a DVD for their own personal use."

Elizabeth Sedlock, chief marketing officer for 321 Studios, said the company didn't want to turn to the courts, but felt it had no choice. She hopes the studio suit will help to clarify some of the issues in the contentious copyright debate. "If it will help to open the conversation about copyright in the digital age, we're all for it," she said.

 

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