By Eriq Gardner
There are a lot of pirated movies floating on the Internet's back channels these days, but that may be nothing compared to the number of digital files circulating if consumers are given a simple way to back up commercial DVDs to their computers' hard drive.
That's a peak at what's at stake in a San Francisco federal courtroom today as lawyers for Hollywood and RealNetworks, one of the biggest online media delivery companies, face off over what technology is legally permissible to sell.
RealNetworks wants to sell a $30 software program called RealDVD that lets users save digital copies of DVDs. Last October, the MPAA sued RealNetworks and got an injunction
that prevented the release of the software.
The case is so important to the movie industry that today, on the first day before Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, the MPAA attempted to cloak the proceedings in secrecy
. Judge Patel now has to consider a motion to kick the public out of the courtroom for fear that confidential information about DVD encryption will be disclosed. (Of course, much of this information leaked many years ago, which explains the number of pirated copies on the black market.)
After that issue over confidentiality gets settled, lawyers on both sides will begin to argue the real legal issue — whether RealDVD violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's provisions on circumventing copy-protection measures. Can the movie industry retain control over its product? Or will RealNetworks win with its argument that users have a right to back up DVDs they've already purchased?
If Real wins, the case opens more questions, including what to do with a service like Netflix (which potentially could allow consumers to rent, rip and return) and whether consumers are allowed to lend out their DVDs to a friend to copy.
This case is waded in a lot of technical jargon, but it will have important ramifications to the film industry.