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The Editor's Spin: Wasted Days and Wasted Nights
Posted Mar 9, 2004 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Perhaps I have a weakness for lost causes, or maybe I'm just ashamed of myself. But I must admit I felt a twinge of guilt two weeks ago when the Northern District Court of California brought the hammer down on 321 Studios, forcing them to recall unsold copies of DVD X Copy and re-issue the software "ripper-free." Have I ever used this monthly bully pulpit to support 321 Studios? Hardly.

The best thing I've done for that company in their ongoing legal ordeal is to print two eloquent letters from 321 founder Robert Moore lambasting me for mocking the pitch of his rhetoric. And I know that ain't much.

I hate seeing small companies get sued into oblivion by big companies. I've seen it way too often in this industry, from Cedar to Prassi to Napster. I've railed against that very practice in this column before. And I suppose I've resisted the urge to write a column like that about 321 Studios simply because I've never been convinced that 321's right to sell content-descrambling is the same as consumers' rights to use it. But that's a meaningless distinction at this point. Clearly, Universal Studios et al. think those two are one and the same, and that's why 321 has been hung out to dry. The movie industry's assault on 321 Studios is outrageous entertainment-biz dirty pool, and I applaud 321 for fighting back. And I have no doubt in my mind I should have applauded them louder and sooner.

Is the district court's ruling the last we'll hear about 321 Studios? I hope not. I'd like to believe 321 Studios is now closing one chapter in their history and beginning another one. Though I'm sure they'll continue to fight for the DVD X Copy we once knew—and let's face it, they've been badly bullied, so they ought to fight on—they'd do well to throw some weight behind the compromised version they're left with now. With or without the controversial DVD ripping component, DVD X Copy Platinum is an out-and-out masterpiece.

Back in the mid-'90s when next to no one was burning music CDs, digital audio extraction (now known as "ripping") was an oddly esoteric art. The few tools that did it were slow, unreliable, and subject to the little-known buffer overflow. But there was a small company called OMI that made a Mac-only ripper called Disc-to-Disk. On a 2X CD-ROM drive, in a mere 30 seconds per track and absolutely reliably, Disc-to-Disk did something that took competing products several minutes or more, with maddening inconsistency.

In early 1997, as I recall, OMI was bought by Microtest, who summarily buried Disc-to-Disk. By the time CD ripping came into vogue several months later, everybody had a swift and steadfast ripper. Why it took others so long to get their act together, I've never figured out. My colleague Hugh Bennett says the reason the CD-R industry took so long to catch the audio wave wasn't technological—they were just plumb scared to take the plunge, fearing the legal repercussions of such a move. Who knew, in 1995, how conventional wisdom would judge audio CD ripping and burning? Who would have guessed that—at least until the advent of Napster and peer-to-peer—the rigid reactionaries at the RIAA would look the other way?

I bring up OMI and its revolutionary ripper not because the DVD "ripping" technology (different process, same result) in DVD X Copy is anything special. It's not. I could download a free DVD ripper right now that circumvents the copy protection on a Hollywood movie every bit as effectively. I just Googled the name of a smart, fool-proof DVD ripper I know and turned up 53,500 hits in 0.12 seconds. I'm not saying what's right and what's wrong as far as DeCSS'ing DVDs goes, or bottling and selling descrambling software, for that matter. But I will say that ripping the ripper out of DVD X Copy won't make DeCSS go away. Or that doing so will make the slightest dent in DVD piracy. DVD X Copy isn't the problem and it never was.

What really makes DVD X Copy analogous to Disc-to-Disk—and what makes it such a thrilling product—is the other half of it. What the old DVD X Copy does after ripping the DVD, and the new one does exclusively (well, not exclusively—it has other excellent, well-implemented features—but stay with me here), is unpack the VOBs on a DVD-9 and recompress the video so it fits onto a 4.7GB DVD±R. That's not to say it has no competition in this space: Pinnacle, InterVideo, Roxio, and Nero have all gotten into the recompression game.

The others will all get the job done most of the time, but put them on the track with DVD X Copy, and X Copy's already taken a victory lap, sat patiently through the press conference, and signed an endorsement deal with Adidas before the others have started the gun lap. Which is to say nothing of the fluid grace of its GUI. It's not just a speed issue—no other tool makes it as easy to economize disc space by picking and choosing the language tracks, audio formats, and titles you want to keep on your final disc. Across the board, there's just no comparison.

All that said, I know the spotlight will stay on 321's legal struggles for some time. That's too bad, because now's the time to separate the ripper from the real genius that's in the X Copy engine and put the spotlight on that. It still leaves me scratching my head, just as it did almost a decade ago when I compared Disc-to-Disk to its scant and sluggish competition. How come they've figured this out and no one else has? And why isn't that what people talk about when they pass judgment on 321 Studios?

I just wish I'd asked that question here sooner.

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