Blast from the Past: Dumb v. Dumber

This article was originally written June 2007.


So RealNetworks, developer of the longest living piece of software garbage ever to stain the intarwebs, is currently fighting a battle against the MPAA over their latest product, RealDVD. The software allows people to easily rip DVDs they own and store them for backup purposes. Real alleges that users have a right to convert media they pay for into whatever format they so choose. The MPAA contents that people can rip DVDs they don’t own and thus not pay the MPAA; they’re additionally arguing that allowing people to convert their media into digital form for free unfairly interferes with their ability to charge people for the exact same thing.

Its funny: I hate people who write a story completely critical of one side of a fight and pretend they are fair and unbiased, but somehow as I’m writing this, I’m having a hard time feeling bad for the MPAA. Studios lately have been bundling digital copies of DVDs with standard ones, which is a mitzvah for people who want to watch something they paid for on whatever device is easiest for them. What is not a mitzvah is that they’re charging people extra for something that the Betamax decision made legal nearly more than 20 years ago for free. Now, when someone is trying to make money by reducing the work people normally go through to make a legal digital copy of something they own, they get a nanny state injunction dropped on them. Because helping someone do something they’re legally entitled to do is apparently illegal.

Now don’t get me wrong. I hate RealNetworks. So far, every single thing they have touched has turned to suck, without fail. RealAudio was the digital equivalent of a pink polo shirt: you saw it coming a mile away and wanted nothing to do with it. RealVideo was like the blond riding the blowout-quaffed beefcake’s arm; dumb, pointless, and attractive only from very far away. And what about RealMedia, the linchpin of this trifecta of awful? Spyware galore…with a media player attached. I say ‘was’ because the Fates have been generous enough to relegate these three to the edges of the internet, where they belong.

However, in this one instance, I am prepared to make an exception, if only because Real managed to swing the luck of the litigation draw. DVD ripping software showed up on the web about 5 minutes after DVD’s hit the market, almost always released by commercial vendors, but the MPAA seems to have singled out Real for retaliation. It can’t be that the MPAA doesn’t know about the others, because they’ve been happily suing people for downloading movies for quite some time now. Not even these idiots could honestly believe that bootleg movies appear spontaneously from the aether. There are rumors that the MPAA may be taking a preemptive strike against ‘Facet’, a DVD jukebox-like set-top box currently under development by Real, but no one could be so hopelessly out of touch with reality…right? RIGHT?

The idea of a DVD jukebox that makes copies of DVD movies for watching later is the logical progression of home media technology, which I found out 5 years ago when I modded my xbox and realized how nice it was. When TV first started, you watched one thing other people wanted you to watch when they wanted you to watch it. Then, Betamax introduced the ability to record something and watch it when you wanted to. VHS fulfilled the prophesy by making it possible for people to watch what they wanted to watch by allowing them to buy or rent cassettes and take them home. And Lo, things were good for a time. But why should I be shackled to just one thing at a time? Why can’t I watch any movie I own without having to get up, root around for the DVD in the drawer\shelf\pile\friend’s house, pull the old one out, and then put the new one in? That doesn’t even account for the time you spend frantically wiping the DVD with your shirt hoping that the cat scratch on it isn’t deep enough to skip the movie just as Zod gets entangled in that cellophane ‘S’. The Netflix Instant Queue is close to meeting that desire, but its got a limited range of material, most of which isn’t what I want. A jukebox which rips movies I own so that I can watch any one I want at such a time as I choose seems to be a complete shortening of the way; bringing italicized text close enough to be considered one complete idea.

Now why would the MPAA try and stop people from getting even more use out of their products? Probably because it cuts into a dwindling profit in a couple big ways. Right off the bat, it cuts out scratched\lost\’borrowed’ re-buys. If you’re stuff is stored digitally, you don’t need to worry about it running off with your ex-girlfriend or hiding under the couch; its always just a click away. Second, because it involves a loss of control terrifying to outdated organizations. The MPAA is essentially a lobbying group for studios, designed to ensure the supremacy of the companies who join it. I’m not going to get into all of the ways that the MPAA is being left behind, but if you’re interested, there’s tons of material out there that illustrate how obsolete it has become. Lastly, and the MPAA’s ‘prime concern’ is the loss of revenue due to ‘rent-rip-return’. Now, I’m not sure if this counts, but having someone pay to rent a movie, rip it, and return it at least nets them something, unlike what’s happening now, where people go online and download them for free. Of course, that’s just one man’s opinion. According to the MPAA, they’re losing billions of dollars due to piracy, and since they’ve got impartial scientists looking into it, we should believe them. Oh wait.

When it comes down to it Real has historically developed awful products, and had the MPAA left well enough alone, they probably would have totally screwed up reverse engineering someone else’s source code and repackaging it as their own. However, they couldn’t resist proving how much of a dick they are and so now people who formerly wouldn’t have wasted the time keeping up foreign relations with Real are rallying behind them as a fellow comrade under siege. If the MPAA sued George W. Bush, even Al Franken would stand behind old big-ears and talk about all the good things he’d done for the country.

Based both 1) on how inept Real has proved to be, and 2) how ridiculously vague and out-of-touch the DMCA is, I’m fairly convinced that Real will lose this fight and thus the MPAA will succeed in stifling innovation for another 10 years, but its only a brief reprieve from the inevitable. This sort of technology can’t be uninvented, and the MPAA is going to have to keep challenging people until people who actually understand technology as more than a series of tubes run the country and can rip out the page in the book of law containing such folderal. Get your kicks now, Motion Picture Association of America; thy doom is close at hand.

And that’s the way it is.


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