It just isn't practical for people to copy DVDs—that's what a columnist for a major computer magazine recently proclaimed. Had this declaration come from a Hollywood executive living in denial, from a consumer electronics manufacturer being politically correct, or even from an uninformed member of the popular media, I wouldn't have been surprised. But I would have expected better from the technical press.
So, just how hard is it to copy a DVD movie? Not as difficult or time-consuming as some make it out to be—and it's getting easier and more convenient every day.
The biggest historical barrier to copying DVD movies was, obviously, that few consumers owned DVD recorders. Like the CD-R industry before it, early-generation writable DVD hardware and media were prohibitively expensive professional prototyping tools and came with imperfect playback compatibility. However, unlike CD-R, which took years to hit the mainstream, writable DVD products are being thrust into low-cost consumer markets. Witness the latest estimates from Strategic Marketing Decisions projecting that 27 million DVD recorders will already be installed worldwide by year's end, rising to some 244 million over the next three years.
With this first line of defense evaporating, the next level of protection against easy copying comes from the Content Scrambling System (CSS) currently installed on most commercial DVD movie titles. As has been well-publicized, however, programmers broke this digital encryption in 1999 and (despite legal efforts to stop the proliferation of the techniques employed), throwing the digital copying door wide open. Since then, a profusion of Internet-distributed freeware has rendered CSS irrelevant.
Beyond digital encryption, an ever-growing number of prerecorded movies enjoy the de facto copy protection of being DVD-9s (8.4GB single-sided, dual-layer). Once a challenge to manufacture and thus a high-priced novelty, DVD-9s became necessary to accommodate lower compression rates as well as supplementary material and therefore were enlisted to publish most recent mainline titles. That, of course, complicated matters from a copying perspective. While DVD-5 discs (4.7GB single-sided single-layer) could easily be decrypted and transferred onto writable DVD media, DVD-9's 8.4GBs won't fit. Equivalent-capacity writable discs simply aren't available.
Some argue that it's only a matter of time before this dual-layer writable DVD media makes its way onto the scene. However, I'm more pessimistic about that possibility. Indeed, Matsushita, MPO, Philips, ITRI and others have demonstrated the technical feasibility of dual-layer DVD-RAM, ROM/RAM, and other formats. These attempts, albeit impressive, are laboratory experiments that give little consideration to cost, ease of manufacture, and market realities. For example, given the extreme difficulties involved in fabricating even current 4.7GB DVD-RAM discs, dual-layer writable DVD discs—of any variety—would arguably remain for some time too complex and therefore too unpredictable and expensive to produce. They would then be entering into a commodity marketplace where price, rather than capability, rules the roost. Further complicating matters will be the inability of the existing installed base of DVD recorders to write dual-layer discs and the likelihood that they couldn't (or wouldn't) be updated to do so.
Of course, DVD-9s can be decrypted and viewed from computer hard drives but, realistically, most consumers want to watch their movies on TV. The more likely scenarios, therefore, are already being played out courtesy of the latest, and grossly underestimated, generations of DVD manipulation tools.
It's possible to jump the DVD-9 hurdle by splitting content into two discs or re-authoring to prune out the additional material. Deleted scenes, documentaries, trailers, and multiple angles, languages, and audio tracks can often all be hacked away so only the main movie remains and fits onto a single writable DVD disc. Accomplishing that used to take a fist full of software and plenty of know-how, but free and commercial tools continue to appear to automate and demystify the process.
The latest approach to emerge is ruthlessly effective and the one most likely to have broad ongoing consumer appeal. It involves recompressing, or selectively recompressing, the video content to a lower bit rate to make it fit onto one writable DVD disc. Excluding extraneous material increases storage space and lessens the required degree of recompression. Obviously, some visual quality is sacrificed, but the result is perfectly acceptable and analogous to that of converting Red Book audio CDs to lower-resolution MP3 files. And while it's true that some products can take upward of five hours to accomplish this, free software is now available to decrypt and recompress full DVD-9s in 45 minutes or less. When paired with a 4X DVD recorder, that's less than one hands-off hour from start to finish. With inevitable advances in software engineering, as well as with processor and recorder speeds, it might not be long before the whole procedure could be performed in less than 15 minutes.
Looking ahead, it's also possible that the MPEG-4 compression and metadata navigation capabilities now making their way into set-top DVD players could "MP3" the video market. Satisfied with "good enough" quality, consumers might simply rip and record multiple movies to a single writable DVD disc and exchange this material online. Alternatively, if next-generation systems catch on, it's sobering to consider that higher-capacity technology, such as Blu-ray Disc (23.3 to 27GB), holds three to four decrypted DVD-9 discs without sacrificing a thing.
Legal and ethical issues aside, the hardware and software needed to copy any DVD movie is already here, and it will continue to get cheaper, faster, easier, and more convenient to use. Ignoring, dismissing, or denying just doesn't cut it.