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John Sciacca Writes...

Features, Reviews and a Blog by John Sciacca

Random Thoughts (Blog)

Random Thoughts (Blog)

The movie copying law-breaking conundrum

Posted on November 28, 2011 at 6:20 PM

There’s a scene from The Simpson’s where attorney, Lionel Hutz, is prepping Marge for some court trial. (I think it is the one where Homer is suing the Old Sea Captain for not getting his promised all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. “Arrrgh! Twas a beast more mouth than man!" )

Marge says, “All I did was tell the truth.” And Hutz – in classic Phil Hartmann brilliance – says, “Of course you did. But there’s *THE TRUTH* (stern, frowny face, slowly shaking head no) and the truth (light, and cheery, all smiles and nods).”

And that’s the way that a lot of people feel about some laws. There’s THE LAW – the unbreakable things that you would never do like murder and bank robbery or making someone sit through Transformers 3 for a second time – and then there’s the law – like speed limits and jay-walking – that really isn’t a big deal to break…until you get caught.

And while most people would never think of robbing a bank, jabbing a pen into the carotid artery of that guy that won’t shut up, or palming a candy bar at Wal-Mart, there seems to be a much broader view of stealing when it comes to things that are less tangible. Like movies.

When it comes movies, there seems to be a “stealing” grayscale rainbow of legality – you know, like “sampling” a couple of grapes -- that runs the gamut from the black-black of stealing film cans or hard disks from theaters , to the black of sitting in a theater with a video camera, to the dark-dark grey of torrenting films off the Internet, to the lighter grey of copying movies you rent from Red Box or Netflix to the questionably grey of movies copied from the local library.

Now, in Hollywood’s eyes, these are all considered “stealing.” Sure, the big FBI warning *probably* isn’t going to come crashing down your door if you copy some films from Netflix. And they don’t put as much effort into looking for that guy as, say, the guy that steals the hard disk of The Hobbit before the theatrical premiere and then pirates ten thousand boot legs that he sells at swap meets, BUT it is illegal all the same. For Hollywood the concern boils down to revenue. Granted, they aren’t losing the millions/billions of dollars from that single user making a copy like they do from the thousands of bootlegs that are for sale every day in China Town and who knows where else, but if you are renting the film at Red Box for $1 and then making a copy, you aren’t BUYING that movie. And if enough people did this and they didn’t make the money on the back-end, they would probably end up making a lot less movies.

Now, not all movie copying is shrouded in nefarious intent; say it is a movie that you bought fair-and-square. How about copying them? Legal or not legal or residing in that grey area of “it depends”?

There are actually quite a few reasons why someone might want to copy the discs that they purchased. For one, once these movies are turned into data, they can be much more easily stored on hard disk drives that can access them far quicker and use metadata to manage a movie collection much like iTunes manages your music library. Further there are very real and practical reasons to copying disks to have a title unhand incase a disk is lost or becomes damaged by being handled over-and-over by kids. Having a 5 year old, I shudder every time she has to touch something of mine that is sensitive, and the shiny side of a disc seems like an unbearable attractor for sticky fingers. Also there is literally no telling what might happen during that 10 foot walk from the safety of the disc case to the safety of the disc tray. In the hands of a youngster, that is like the technological Rubicon. (And much like anything with peanut butter on it will ALWAYS land peanut butter side down on the floor, any dropped disc seems to ALWAYS land label side up.)

Further, it would be great to be able to buy the movie on a disc for viewing at home and then transform it into a format that allows it to be viewed on an iTouch or iPad or computer for mobile viewing. Does buying the DVD for $15-20 give me this “right of use”? Hollywood would probably say, “No.” OK. Take out the probably.

And, before I get on my high-horse here about movie copying, I want to say that I have a Kaleidescape system and I*totally* love it. It has been an amazing tool for organizing my personal movie library, of which I have 268 titles. The Kaleidescape system provides a LEGAL way of making perfect, bit-for-bit copies of your film library. I drop in a film – DVD or Blu-ray – and the system automatically copies it to the hard disk(s) and then the movie is available for near instant viewing. The films are copied to hard disk(s) that then live in the closed, Kaleidescape ecosystem of server and player; once copied, the movie is completely unavailable outside THAT Kaleidescape system. I can’t make a copy of my hard disks and send them to another Kaleidescape owner to use, nor can I burn a copy of a movie that has been stored onto the Kaleidescape system. It is a system that is designed not to aid pirates, but to enable collectors to better enjoy their films. And beyond just managing my movie collection in a WAY cooler manner, sorting titles by genre, actor, director, rating, running time, etc. the Kaleidescape offers tons of other slick features like favorite scenes, scripted demo scenes, the Kid’s collection, sorting TV episodes, repositioning sub-titles for viewing on high-end projection systems, skipping trailers and ads, remembering your preferred audio format, etc.

And I firmly believe that if given the option, EVERYONE would love to own a Kaleidescape system. Seriously. EVERYONE. But as much as I love the Kaleidescape system and think that it offers an unrivaled entertainment experience, I can appreciate that it is an experience that is NOT available to everyone. A base Kaleidescape system starts at $5000 and my configuration would run closer to $20,000.

And it seems a bit “I am the 1%” of me to proclaim that the only right and legal way to copy your movie collection is to invest in a Kaleidescape system (though I am sure that Kaleidescape would love me to say that). Somewhat akin to drivers saying, “Well, the roads are really only safe for Ferraris and if you can’t drive a Ferrari, then you’d best just stick to walking or enjoying public transit.” Money should not be the barrier to backing up your movies or enjoying them in the manner that digital versions permit.

So, I totally GET the desire to want to copy YOUR movie collection.

Unfortunately, it IS illegal. Maybe the lightest-of-greys illegal, but, you know, probably gonna come up if you ever decide to run for office.

According to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, tools that are designed to circumvent copy-control technology, including the CSS (Contents Scramble System) that used in DVDs. Buying and using these DVD-ripping programs in the US is breaking the law. And argue all you want about your fair-use right to make a personal backup copy, the DVD Copy Control Association – which owns CSS – disagrees.  The MPAA says consumers who use the software are breaking the law.

And even though this software is illegal in the US, it doesn’t stop these programs from being readily available on the Internet. And when you’re talking about software that is easily downloaded in a matter of moments, does it really matter if you are downloading from a site in New York or one in London or China? It all arrives onto your hard drive all the same.

Other than my Kaleidescape system, I have never copied a DVD. And it’s not because I haven’t had the want to. In fact, I would love to have the discs available to me – OK, to Lauryn – when we travel. And that would mean making a copy. I just hadn’t wanted to bother with the trouble of it. And I always assumed that it would be complicated, time consuming, kludgey proposition.

But I recently downloaded a popular bit of software called AnyDVD HD from for a product review that I’m working on. The program comes with a 21 day free trial where you are given full access to all of the features. After that you are encouraged to buy the program if you like the results. (Heaven forbid you pirate THEIR intellectual property!) Along with this software – which is apparently the tool needed for “cracking” the CSS keys – you get trials of Clone DVD2 for copying all or just parts of the disc – onto either your hard drive or for burning an identical back-up – and Clone DVD Mobile which allows you transcode the title into different formats, for, say viewing on an iPad or, I don’t know, those four people that bought a Zune.

So far I’ve copied several discs to test the system, and actually copied the Blu-ray of Beauty and the Beast while I was writing this. It is incredibly simple and so far seems to be able to copy any disc that I’ve presented it, basically requiring little more than clicking a button that says “Clone Disc.”

I understand Hollywood’s concern; once you have the tool, it is impossible to prevent someone from using it in the wrong manner. The software has no way of differentiating between discs that you own or ones that you rent, borrow or find in truck stop lockers. (Actually, the Kaleidescape system CAN identify some discs as rental only titles and will not allow you to import these. Aren’t those guys smart?) So, the only way to insure that it isn’t being used in this manner is to ban the use of it altogether.

Except, the problem is, the lid is already off this box; the tools are already out there, and those that want to“do harm” with them are already doing it. Make some new bit of encryption and they’ll just delight in hacking that as well. Technology has proved to us that you are NOT going to keep out the dedicated hacker. So, we end up right where we are; no legal solution for people to do something that seems entirely reasonable. And instead of some mega-company like Sony or Apple creating this killer, mass-market solution that would be easy and glitch-free and affordable to use, you have software that is purchased off-line from another country and largely supported by forums.


Do I wish that I could use my Kaleidescape system to create portable versions of my films for viewing on our iPad? Absolutely. Wrote a whole blog on it. Do I think that this is a feature that they will incorporate anytime? No. They’ve told me as much. (COULD they do this? Yes. And that’s what is so damning! Stupid MPAA and your stupid laws!)

Will I continue to use the SlySoft program to make back-ups of my movies for mobile viewing? Good question… Hey, what’s that over there...

Categories: November 2011, Movies, Computers

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