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Can You Be Sued for Helping Clients Rip DVDs?

EFF attorney Fred von Lohmann explains some of the legal issues involved in selling and installing products that enable users to copy DVDs.


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If you sell or install DVD servers, are you legally responsible if your clients misuse them? In short, it mostly depends on what you’re selling and how much you know about your clients’ ripping habits.

Much has been said about the legality of products that enable the copying of protected DVDs. (The issues have not entirely been resolved.)

But little has been said about the installers who sell and configure systems for copying DVDs to a home server. Are they liable for installing such products if the manufacturer swears the products are “legal,” even if they are later deemed by the courts to be illegal?

Can they be prosecuted for helping clients download unlicensed DVD decryption software?

There really are no precedents yet.

In response to our story on the latest DVD storage solutions, we heard from Brad Gibbs, president of the integration firm Peak to Peak Systems, Pacifica, Calif.

He posed several questions that seem to be on every integrator’s mind.

I forwarded those questions to Fred von Lohmann, senior intellectual property attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization that fights for digital rights.

Von Lohmann was kind enough to reply to Gibbs’ questions.

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He strongly advises: “They [integrators] really need to hire a lawyer to advise them on specific courses of action.”

Wearing his attorney hat, von Lohmann answers conservatively, and in the end reminds installers that they probably don’t want to fight the powerful MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and DVD CCA (Copy Control Association).

We may argue that no integrator (that we know of) has been sued for contributing to the delinquency of DVD-ripping clients. But individuals certainly have been sued for “piracy,” so installers are not immune.

That said, here is some wisdom from the Mr. von Lohmann:

What are the potential liabilities for integrators?

Selling products that archive DVDs

The MPAA is likely to argue that (1) selling anything that makes copies of movies if you have reason to know that the customer is going to use it to infringe is, itself, an act of contributory infringement and (2) while the “archiving” may not violate the DMCA’s [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] prohibition on unauthorized decryption, any device that includes any unlicensed “decrypter” or “player” is a circumvention device prohibited by the DMCA.

So is something like Kaleidescape “unlicensed”? Well, that’s what the appellate fight is all about.

Installing DVD ripping software for use with Control4 or Crestron

If it’s unlicensed ripping software (a la Handbrake), then the MPAA would certainly argue that it is a violation of the DMCA to install it for clients (because it’s providing a “circumvention service” within the meaning of the statute).

If it’s licensed ripping software (like RealNetworks’ RealDVD), then they may still argue that the installer is a “contributory infringer,” because it’s an infringement to make copies of movies, even for personal use (the MPAA has repeatedly argued in the DMCA triennial rule makings that there is no fair use right to make personal use copies).

Control4 or Crestron systems that aggregate ripped content

Probably not a problem, unless the installer has knowledge of specific infringing activities by the customer.

Client only rips DVDs he/she owns or DVDs he/she doesn’t own

Again, the MPAA argues that any copying of movies is an infringement, whether you own them or not.

No court has ever ruled on that question, so it’s a jump ball.

More importantly for installers, who among them wants to spend the money necessary to defend a lawsuit by an MPAA company or the DVD-CCA?



  About the Author

Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at [email protected]

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