How should schools and universities make copies of DVDs for use in the classroom and scholarship? If you ask the DVD Copy Control Association, educators can just point a smartphone at the TV, or use PC screen-capture utilities — anything except breaking the notoriously weak copy-protection used on DVDs and ripping a digital copy directly. That's the argument the DVD CCA is making at the Copyright Office as part of the government's triennial copyright rulemaking process, and it demonstrates just how dramatically technology has changed the copyright debate over the past decade: the guardians of DVD copy protection have just filed a brief with the United States government arguing that a copy of Amelie made by pointing a Droid Incredible 2 at a 15-inch Compaq Presario laptop is good enough for most fair use purposes.
A quick review: the modern battle over copyright law essentially began in 1999 with a program called DeCSS, which stripped DVD copy protection and allowed movies to be ripped just like songs from a CD. Under the infamous Digital Millenium Copyright Act, breaking such a digital lock is illegal, and the major movie studios quickly began suing those who would so much as distribute DeCSS on a webpage, fearing that a flood of digital copies would damage the market for DVDs. The most famous of these cases was Universal vs. Reimerdes, in which the publishers of 2600 magazine were found liable for "trafficking in circumvention devices" for merely linking to the code of DeCSS hosted on another server. That ruling was upheld on appeal, and it remains illegal to break DVD copy protection and rip movies under the DMCA.
The modern copyright wars essentially began over DVDs in 1999
The DMCA lock-breaking rules are somewhat relaxed every three years, when the Copyright Office asks for proposed exemptions: in 2010 the Copyright Office made it legal to jailbreak smartphones and also to copy short portions of DVDs for criticism and comment. For 2013, a host of individuals and organizations have asked for those rules to be renewed and extended in a variety of ways, including a laundry list of proposed exemptions that would allow consumers to break DVD copy protection for everything from scholarship to accessibility for the deaf to general backup.
In response, the DVD CCA argues making bypassing DVD copy protection legal is unnecessary because technology exists to acquire content in many other ways — and in addition to new services like iTunes and Hulu that let people pay for content, the industry group specifically calls out smartphone recording and PC screen capture as viable options for making good-enough copies for things like classroom use. Smartphone copies in particular are trumpeted as being high-quality and cost-effective; in 2009 the Copyright Office said regular camcorders were expensive and produced poor-quality results. This year the DVD CCA says it made a test recording of Amelie by pointing a Droid Incredible 2 at a 15.6-inch Compaq Presario CQ60 laptop, and that the resulting 720p video was more than watchable:
...the subtitles are legible, facial expressions and other gestures are discernable, and the sound, particularly when the audio portion is played back through external speakers, is sufficiently precise that nuanced inflections can be distinguished.
That's not necessarily surprising — the Incredible 2's camera does get an 8 rating from Verge readers, after all — but we'll have to see if the Copyright Office buys it. Hearings on the proposed exemptions and the associated comments from groups like the DVD CCA will be starting soon; we'll be tracking this one closely.