Next week, the first commercial software that promises to let computer users make backup copies of DVD movies will be released, a product that has the potential to be Hollywood's version of Napster...
St. Louis-based 321 Studios, developer of DVD X Copy, plans to make the software available for download starting Monday at its site, dvdxcopy.com, for $100.
Hollywood insisted on having copy protection built into DVDs from the format's formative days. The only test was in 1999, when a Norwegian teen posted a program to get around the encryption. The Motion Picture Association of America successfully sued to have it removed from the Internet.
The MPAA hasn't yet filed suit against 321 Studios. But the company initiated pre-emptive legal proceedings this year against Hollywood, asking the court to affirm that consumers have the right to make copies of products they own.
The MPAA, citing the litigation, declined comment. But the industry seems likely to file suit, and both the movie and music industries have near-perfect records in court when protecting digital copyrights.
In the past, MPAA president Jack Valenti has called DVD recorders ''the newest incarnation of movie piracy.''
''Napster clearly was the bridge for trading copyrighted material,'' 321 president Robert Moore says. ''Our position is that our product is for the purpose of making backup copies of the movies you already own. We feel it's legal.''
DVD X is PC-only and works with prerecorded movies, not home video, both areas 321 says it will address in future versions.
Using a computer's DVD drive, the software transfers the film's contents from the disc to the hard disk -- similar to ''ripping'' music from CDs -- taking about 4 GB of temporary space. The movie files can then be copied back onto blank DVDs, though the files would be far too large for easy Net swapping. DVD burners have slid in price from about $500 during the summer to as little as $300 today; high-end computers from Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Sony feature DVD recorders.
Nothing prevents users from copying other people's DVDs or rentals. ''We can't distinguish between a rented DVD or an owned DVD,'' Moore says. ''We take the position that we don't support making copies of rented material.''
''Studios have a lot to worry about,'' says Raymond James analyst Phil Leigh. ''This is going to impact Blockbuster's business. If the movies end up on the Internet in an open format like MP3, look out.''
Movie piracy already is rampant online; many films show up on the Net within days of their theatrical premieres. Movielink, a Hollywood-backed alternative selling downloads of current films, is scheduled to start by the end of the year.