This week, we explore a bit of a legal conundrum. According to the US Constitution, the purpose of copyright is to protect any original expression, in any medium, so that the copyright holder can be compensated for his or her work. However, there’s also the legal concept of fair use, which says that you can copy or distribute copyrighted works for personal or educational use—with certain limitations. For example, it’s generally accepted that you can "tape" a song from an audio CD and listen to that tape on your car stereo. However, you can’t legally make several copies of that CD and distribute them to individuals who didn’t purchase the original CD.

Simple scenario, right?

But complicating matters is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which exists to address industry concerns about PC-based media copying. This little beauty prevents anyone from offering technology that circumvents copy protection. So far, the most famous case surrounding the DMCA involves DeCSS, a bit of software that circumvents the encryption that most DVD movies use. DeCSS was written solely so that Linux users could watch DVD movies. That sounds like fair use to me. However, because the software circumvents copy protection, it violates the DMCA and is technically illegal.

Critics have argued—successfully, I believe—that the DMCA is ill considered and in conflict with existing copyright laws. However, it’s still on the books. And if you're interested in backing up your DVD movies (a fair use if there ever was one), you're going to have to reconcile the DMCA with pre-existing copyright laws. And you're going to have to find a solution that works.

The How and Why
Why back up DVD movies? There are plenty of reasons. First, DVDs are easily scratched or damaged, thereby rendering the underlying content useless. Today, hard disks are plentiful and capacious. And with more and more people serving audio content, photo slide shows, and home movies via a Media Center PC or media server, those people are more and more commonly wanting to set up movie jukeboxes. Most PCs can utilize only one or two DVD drives—and thus one or two movies—at a time. It's inconvenient.

Backing up DVDs has its downsides. You must understand that a digital copy of a DVD can never replace a physical DVD. You shouldn't sell a DVD after you've copied it, and you certainly shouldn't copy rented DVD movies. Also, most copied DVD movies result in files that are quite large, occupying several gigabytes of storage if copied at full quality. Finally, copying DVD movies is quite time-consuming. Unlike audio CDs, which you can often copy in seconds, DVD movies can require a few hours to copy. This isn’t a task for people who want instant results.

So, how do you copy DVD movies? In the past, I’ve used free programs such as DVD Decrypter, which can "rip" the contents of a DVD movie onto a hard disk. Then, I would use one of any number of programs to convert the ripped DVD into a more suitable format, such as MPEG-2, DivX/XVid, MPEG-4, or Windows Media Video (WMV). The problem with DVD Decrypter is that it requires you to go through the intermediate step of decrypting DVDs to disk. Another, perhaps more fatal problem is that DVD Decrypter's author has stopped updating the program because of DMCA-based legal threats.

AnyDVD
Since DVD Decrypter's death, I've found a more elegant solution. A company called SlySoft makes an ingenious $39 application called AnyDVD, which resides in memory and unprotects commercial DVDs on the fly. So, when AnyDVD is running and you insert a DVD movie, it appears to the system to be unencrypted. Then, you can use the video application of your choice to copy the DVD contents into a more suitable format. Incidentally, AnyDVD is also good for other uses: It removes a DVD's region information, letting you play international DVDs, and it prevents DVDs with horrible PC-based software (such as PC-Friendly) from automatically starting on insert.

I've experimented with various video applications, but since I'll be reviewing CyberLink PowerDirector soon, I’ll walk you through the process of copying a DVD by using AnyDVD and PowerDirector. First, make sure AnyDVD is resident on your system. Then, launch PowerDirector and insert a DVD movie in your PC's DVD drive. Next, select File, Import to import either the DVD’s entire VIDEO_TS folder or the individual VOB files that make up the movie.

In PowerDirector, you can drag individual VOB files to the timeline and edit them, or you can simply drag the entire movie onto the timeline and prepare to write it to disk. PowerDirector, like any good video editor, gives you a number of options for saving the movie. You can make a Video CD or DVD, for example. Or, you can save it to the hard disk in AVI, DivX, MPEG-1, or MPEG-2 format. MPEG-2 is the native format for DVD movies, so that's probably a good choice. Let’s start with that. A 1-minute MPEG-2 video encoded in a DVD-quality 720 x 480 format takes about 60 seconds to encode and occupies about 56MB of space. Do the math, and you're looking at about 5GB for a typical 90-minute movie. And, of course, the roughly 1:1 ratio of movie length to encoding time means that the video will take about 90 minutes to write to disk. Yikes.

DivX provides similar quality to MPEG-2 at much smaller file sizes, but the encoding process typically takes longer. That same 1-minute clip, encoded to the same resolution, will take about 1 minute and 4 seconds to encode, but the resulting file is only 17.2MB. So, a 90-minute movie would occupy just 15.5GB. That's much better, but DivX is also a slightly dodgy format, and is not as widely supported as MPEG-2.

What About the Mac?
I'm also investigating ways in which Apple Macintosh users can rip DVDs to their systems. One good solution is Handbrake, an open-source application. However, Handbrake can rip only to H.264/MPEG-4 and XviD, which are both high quality but somewhat non-standard. The H.264 ripping is particularly high quality, but also slow: It took over 9 hours to rip a 90-minute movie to my 1.33GHz PowerBook's hard disk in this format! That's unacceptable, although the resulting movie is only 850MB and looks gorgeous. If anyone has better Mac-oriented advice, I'd love to hear it.

Moving Forward
Ripping DVDs isn't as convenient as ripping audio CDs, but this discussion might be soon be irrelevant. In the coming year, major motion picture companies are expected to begin offering mainstream Hollywood movies in DVD-quality digital download formats the day they're released to theaters. Although information about these services is only beginning to trickle out, we can expect to see Apple iTunes-like movie services that offer both movie rentals and purchases, in Microsoft's Windows Media Video (WMV) format—protected with Digital Rights Management (DRM), of course—soon. Today, services such as CinemaNow and Movielink offer small selections of movies, but future services won't be so limited. High-quality movie services won't remove the need to rip previously purchased DVDs, but they'll at least provide another option. In the meantime, it's possible—if slightly painful—to rip DVD movies today. You just need the right tools.