, Washington Post 2003-06-23
A little program called DeCSS caused a lot of commotion when it surfaced onthe Internet four years ago. DeCSS does only one task: Remove the encryption
on a DVD movie, allowing the video files on the disc to be used at will --
played back off the disc, copied to the computer's hard drive or burned to a
Its author, a Norwegian teenager named Jon Lech Johansen, said he wrote DeCSS
because he wanted to be able to watch DVDs on his Linux computer and no
authorized playback software was available.
The movie industry preferred to describe DeCSS as a lock-picking tool, useful
only for piracy. It successfully filed suit to prevent the posting of DeCSS
to Web sites from the United States.
The entertainment industry's legal campaign against the DeCSS code (its name
refers to the Content Scramble System used to regulate playback) has
continued ever since. At the end of May, for example, the California Supreme
Court opened hearings on a suit by the DVD Copy Control Association, the
licensing body behind CSS, that argues posting DeCSS online violates the
state's trade-secret laws.
Programmers continued to rework DVD-unlocking software, eventually writing
new, more effective code. That, in turn, has given birth to a surprising
variety of applications.
These unauthorized DVD programs handle a variety of useful tasks. They allow
you to jump past the FBI warning that licensed playback software must display
before showing the movie. They let you breeze by the otherwise unskippable
commercials that some movie studios are fond of shoving into their DVDs. They
can ignore the "region controls" that prevent you from watching the movie you
bought in Paris on the player you picked up here.
For example, VideoLAN Client (www.videolan.org) allows DVD playback,
independent of region-coding restrictions, on Linux, Windows, Mac OS X and
other operating systems. It can even stream a DVD over the Internet, if
sufficient bandwidth is available. Like most software in this category, it's
an open-source release, free for anybody to download or improve on.
It can, however, be a little clumsy at opening a DVD sometimes -- there's no
guarantee that it will be able to play every title you throw at it.
Other software specializes in copying DVDs to disk. DVD Decrypter, a free
download for Windows (www.dvddecrypter.com), makes copying DVDs to disk as
easy as, if not easier than, copying songs off a CD. Load a DVD, fire up this
program and just click the big DVD-to-hard-disk icon to have it do its thing.
In about 20 minutes, it had the latest Bond flick stored on my laptop's hard
drive and had even automatically removed the region coding and the
Macrovision analog copy prevention that stops you from duplicating a DVD to
I could use this program to copy rented DVDs at will, but I have no such
interest. Rather, this program is useful to me because it lets me move movies
I own to my laptop's hard drive, then leave the external DVD/CD-RW drive at
home when I travel.
In other words, this unauthorized, unlicensed software makes DVDs more
valuable and useful to me.
The DVD industry, however, sees things a little differently.
"If enough people do . . . not buy licensed players, then the economic
framework of the licensing framework goes down the drain," said Robert
Sugarman, a partner with Weil, Gotshal and Manges who represents the DVD Copy
Control Association. His argument: Without the control over DVD playback that
this licensing provides, the industry will see its profits nibbled away as
people steal DVDs.
Even watching a movie outside the region it was released in can pose a
financial threat, since the movie industry relies on the ability to issue
movies on DVD at varying times around the world to recover the high costs of
Vendors of licensed DVD playback tools, Sugarman added, also lose their
investment in playing by the rules if users opt for unauthorized versions.
But two things don't quite make sense in the DVD association's position.
One is the idea of trying to stop the distribution of a program on the
Internet. It just doesn't work. The entire U.S. government could not stop an
encryption program called Pretty Good Privacy from being used throughout the
world in the past decade, and things have only gotten easier since.
The second is the focus on DeCSS. You don't need DeCSS to steal a DVD; you
can create a "disc image," an exact, bit-for-bit copy, and use that to make
new copies. Furthermore, nobody seems to use DeCSS anymore. Current
unlicensed playback software relies on a software library called "libdvdcss,"
which was written mostly from scratch after the release of DeCSS. And the DVD
copy association's lawyers have yet to go after this code.
"The DVD CCA has never tried to reach the VideoLAN team about our development
of the libdvdcss library," developer Sam Hocevar wrote in an e-mail.
Meanwhile, programmers of unauthorized DVD software are performing an
interesting economic service by determining what features customers would
enjoy if the capabilities of DVD players were not locked down by licensing
There's plenty of free market research here, if the movie industry would only
take a look.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob (at) twp (dot) com. [email concealed]