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The DCMA, MPAA, Your DVDs, and Ethics

Traditionally, copyright law in the United States has been fairly liberal in what it allows a consumer to do with a purchased work protected by copyright. Some of these freedoms are written down, others are the result of various legal decisions. Collectively they are known as fair use.

In the US we have usually felt that fair use included the right to copy materials for one’s own use. For example, back in the analog era I would copy my LPs to casette tape, allowing me to listen to my music in my car. Under the aegis of fair use, I’ve always presumed it was legal for me to copy my CDs and DVDs to my hard drive.

All this was fine until the US Congress passed the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998. This act effectively made it illegal to circument copy protection mechanisms in order to access copyrighted material. This has been widely interpreted to mean that it is illegal to use programs such as DVD Decrypter to read DVDs that are your own personal property.

DMCA protest imagery

Well-known court cases over the past few years have shown that the DCMA is going to be used to prevent people from selling software that circumvents copy protection. But does that mean it’s illegal for me to use that software to copy my DVDs to my hard drive jukebox?

I don’t think so. The DMCA clearly says:

Nothing in this section shall affect rights, remedies, limitations, or defenses to copyright infringement, including fair use, under this title.

To me, that’s a slam dunk: I have the right to make copies of my CDs and movies for personal use. And I’m going to proceed with that thinking until Congress or the courts clearly demonstrate otherwise. (No, I’m not going to go to jail for the right to watch Lethal Weapon 4 on my laptop.) So in my personal, non-warranted, uneducated opinion, the personal copying described in this article should not give you even a twinge of guilt.

More DMCA protest imagery

Where is the line?

The thing that worries the MPAA and other advocates for copying restrictions is a simple thing. Once we make it easy to copy DVDs for personal use, it’s just as easy to do so for illegal use. Once I have a 1GB copy of a classic move like Lost In Space, it’s an easy matter for me to give a copy to my son Joey as a really crummy birthday present. Or I could just send a copy of the original DVD to Joey, and he could watch the movie from his hard drive jukebox.

So let’s be clear about the lines. As long as you own the DVD, I believe it’s fine to keep a copy on your hard drive. If you don’t own the DVD, having a copy is theft. It’s theft just as clearly as if you went and pulled $20 out of Jack Valenti’s pocket. Just because it’s easy and hard to detect doesn’t make it okay.

Of course, I am not a lawyer, so my beliefs are not opinions you should stake your future one. has a fairly interesting article discussing just this topic. And of course, the Electronic Freedom Foundation is all over the issue. Go to these sources for more information.