DVD-ripping FAQs

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Whenever we write about applications such as HandBrake or RipIt, we get comments asking about whether ripping your DVDs to enjoy in a different format is OK to do. Here are answers to some of the questions people have regarding the subject.

Is DVD ripping illegal?

The MPAA and most media companies argue that you can’t legally copy or convert commercial DVDs for any reason. We (and others) think that, if you own a DVD, you should be able to override its copy protection to make a backup copy or to convert its content for viewing on other devices.

The law isn’t entirely clear one way or the other—Fair Use proponents claim you have the right to make a back-up copy of the media you own, whereas those who support the Digital Millennium Copyright Act say that the DMCA overrides Fair Use. So our advice is: If you don’t own it, don’t do it. If you do own it, think before you rip.

Why would anybody need to make a copy of a DVD or rip it to another format anyway? Isn’t it all about piracy?

Apparently you are childless, or, at least, you haven’t had a five-year-old in the house for many years. It’s an indisputable truth that where there are five-year-olds, there is jam, and that jam will find its way from the five-year-old’s fingers to every DVD you own. Unless you enjoy purchasing multiple copies of Finding Nemo and Mary Poppins, you’ll understand why perfectly respectable parents seek ways to back up their DVDs.

Similarly, if you’ve ever flown with your laptop, you’ve likely brought along a DVD or two to watch. Put copies of those DVDs on your laptop’s hard drive, and your laptop’s battery will last much longer. Plus you won’t have to worry about the DVD getting damaged; it will be stored safely at home.

Or if you own an entire season or series of a TV show on DVD and don’t enjoy hunting around for the right DVD, waiting for it load up, selecting an episode, and on and on, you might want to be able to, say, put all those episodes on an Apple TV or iPad to watch as desired.

Why not just purchase everything you own again from the iTunes Store? That way you have a backup and a portable file.

Although that would make Apple and the movie and TV studios very happy, it can be very expensive to buy another copy of every movie you have just so you can watch them on your iPad when you travel, say.

Are you saying that if you buy something once, in one format, you should get it free forever?

Not at all. But there’s a common sense argument to be made regarding nickel-and-diming customers. This isn’t the same as, say, moving from LP to cassette to CD. The video on DVDs is already digital and roughly the same quality as something you might purchase from the iTunes Store. We’re sympathetic to the idea that the studios need to make money—we make our money by selling content, too—and we definitely oppose piracy. We’re simply suggesting that it’s just as legitimate to rip the movies you own as it is is to rip your audio CDs.

What about the digital copies that come with some DVDs now?

A DVD with an iTunes-friendly digital copy.

Clearly Hollywood is trying to combat piracy, and including an iTunes-friendly copy of a movie that comes on a DVD is a great step to make DVD ripping unnecessary. But at the same time, it’s a tacit admission that people want to view the content they purchase in different places and in different ways. Making it so people don’t have to resort to ripping their own DVDs is a smart move. At the same time, however, what about if you already own a DVD of a movie, and it doesn’t include the digital copy? And what about TV shows on DVD?

Didn’t RealNetworks get sued by the movie studios for selling a DVD-ripping product?

Yes, Real’s Windows-only RealDVD software was designed to let users rip DVD to their hard drives for viewing. Six Hollywood movie studios, Viacom, and the DVD Copy Control Association sued Real over the software.

The judge issued a preliminary injunction preventing Real from selling the software, and said the company violated federal law, plus as a license agreement that Real had signed with the DVD Copy Control Association. But Real settled the case in March 2010, agreeing to refund the purchase price of the 2,700 who had bought RealDVD, as well as pay $4.5 million to cover the other side’s legal fees.

Is that why so much of the DVD-ripping software is developed somewhat secretly and outside of the U.S.?

handbrake v1 icon The HandBrake Team

That’s a safe guess. HandBrake is hosted on a French domain, RipIt comes from Australia, and acquiring a copy of the latest version of MacTheRipper requires a convoluted process in order to contact the (rather paranoid or sensible, you choose) developers, make a ‘gift’ to its development, and finally getting the software and licensing files (in separate emails). This also explains why most DVD ripping software doesn’t have the decryption tools contained in the application itself, but rather uses separate tools. Developers of these tools may believe that as long as they don’t provide the mechanism for defeating copy protection, they’re in the clear.

Will TV and movie studios ever move away from copy-protection as have the music companies?

It’s hard to say. The studios are taking a different approach to piracy and copy-protection than did the music companies. You don’t hear a lot about strong-arm tactics and lawsuits as you did when the RIAA was going after music pirates. Instead, the studios are doing things such as offering digital copies along with DVDs and Blu-ray discs and trying to educate people about the harms of piracy. They’re also making more of their content available online via services such as Hulu and YouTube. The studios’ approach appears to be “We get it, and we’re trying, but we still need to control our content.” We’ll have to see how that works out.

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