Copying DVDs onto your computer, an act which as recently as a year ago almost assuredly involved breaking the law, is becoming downright respectable.
More and more discs are being released with a bonus feature that allows copying onto a PC or hand-held video device, as studios look to spur DVD sales and head off wholesale pirating of their films. And new copying software, set to debut next week, could legitimize copying any prerecorded DVD.
The bonus feature, usually included on two-disc special-edition DVDs that are increasingly showing up at major retailers, allows for a single download onto a PC, iPod or other compatible player, such as an iPhone.
It allows airplane or bus travelers, for instance, to watch movies without having to carry the DVDs with them. It also preserves a copy of the movie inside the computer, in case anything should happen to the disc.
20th Century Fox was the first company to include digital copies with selected DVDs, beginning in January. Since then, most of the studio's major DVD releases have included the copy option in its two-disc special editions, which usually cost $2 to $5 more than single-disc DVDs.
Fox recently released a list of 25 films from its back catalog, including There's Something About Mary, Napoleon Dynamite and the three X-Men movies, that will be made available with digital copies starting today.
"It's a matter of providing consumers with what they've told us they want ... portability," said Steve Feldstein, senior vice president for corporate and marketing communications for 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. "If the family wants to watch the movie together, you've got the disc. If the kid wants to watch it in their room on the laptop, they can transfer the digital copy right onto the laptop."
Warner and Paramount have since begun adding digital copies to some of their new releases, including The Love Guru and Sex and the City: The Movie. Disney included its first digital copy with the August release of a special edition of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Copies are made by inserting the disc into the PC and typing in a serial number included with the DVD package. An Internet connection is needed; downloading a film takes about two minutes.
The average digital copy takes up about 1 gigabyte of memory on a PC, according to Feldstein. Since most PCs have at least 250 GB on their hard drives, there's plenty of room for storing film copies. Space is more limited on iPods or iPhones, which may be able to hold only a few movies at a time.
Industry analyst Tom Adams, president of Monterey, Calif.-based Adams Media Research, said studios hope the digital copies will help stem illegal DVD copying. Movie studios have long tried to avoid the example set by the music industry, which estimates it lost billions of dollars to illegal music-sharing when the technology was still fairly new, and has never really recovered.
"This is definitely an anti-piracy countermove," he said. "They're providing people with a portable copy of the movie, something that until now could only be done illegally."
At an industry conference in London in June, Fox senior vice president for international marketing David Stevens said his company was seeing a 10 percent to 20 percent increase in sales of the double-disc DVDs, according to Consumer Electronics Daily. He attributed much of that increase to the addition of digital copy.
Even greater freedom to copy DVDs could be on the horizon.
By next week, Seattle-based RealNetworks plans to introduce copying software that would allow consumers to dub any DVD onto their computer hard drive. The software, called RealDVD, will sell for about $30. It allows one copy of a DVD to be placed on a computer's hard drive. To prevent the sharing of DVD content, the resulting copy can't be duplicated or played on other media - unless the copy is made using a portable hard drive. In that case, the movie could be played on other PCs by purchasing up to five additional software downloads at $20 each.
"We don't want to even open the door to people sharing," said RealNetworks spokesman Ryan Luckin.
DVD Copy Control Association spokesman Greg Larsen wouldn't comment on RealDVD, or on how the software is able to copy movies legally.
"We're taking a look at the product," he said.