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Why Watching DVDs on Linux is Illegal in the USA

handcuffs

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes unlocking cell phones, ripping DVDs, removing eBook DRM, and jailbreaking tablets illegal in the USA. However, there’s another surprise: simply watching a DVD on Linux is also illegal.

This is why Ubuntu and other Linux distributions don’t include out-of-the-box DVD support, forcing you to run a command that downloads and installs libdvdcss from elsewhere – not the Linux distribution’s software repositories, or they would get in trouble.

If you are an American who’s watched a DVD on Linux, there’s a good chance the DMCA makes you a criminal.

Image Credit: Victor on Flickr

What the DMCA Says

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act came into effect in 1998 in the USA.  It’s a copyright law that includes anti-circumvention measures. Essentially, it makes it illegal to circumvent “technological protection measures,” including cell phone locks and protections against installing unapproved software on tablets like Apple’s iPad and Microsoft’s Surface RT (jailbreaking).

Technological protection measures are also found on eBooks, so breaking the DRM on an eBook to read it on another eReader is technically a crime, as well. (Not all eBooks have to contain DRM, however. Our eBook has no DRM, although it’s published through Amazon.)

You can find more information about the DMCA and its anti-circumvention measures on the Chilling Effects website.

Video DVDs are Encrypted

Playing a commercial video DVD is normally as simple as placing it in a DVD player or a computer’s DVD drive. If it’s a computer, the appropriate software starts up and starts playing it automatically. In an age of DRM-tainted eBooks and other types of files that may not play on all your hardware, DVDs are a convenient way to watch movies without any restrictions.

That’s what it feels like, at least. However, most commercial video DVDs are encrypted using the Content Scramble System (CSS). If you wanted to produce your own DVD player, you’d have to license CSS support from the DVD Copy Control Association (DVD CCA). As part of this licensing scheme, you would also have to implement other copy-protection features, such as the region code system that prevents DVDs purchased in one part of the world from being played on DVD players purchased elsewhere.

select-dvd-drive-region

Image Credit: BY-YOUR-⌘ on Flickr

Home video DVDs don’t use CSS encryption, and can be played back normally.

DeCSS

In 1999, there was no way to play DVDs on the Linux operating system. While DVD players built into computers came with licensed DVD-playing software for Windows, they didn’t function on Linux. A Norwegian programmer named Jon Lech Johansen created DeCSS by reverse-engineering a poorly-protected DVD player. DeCSS was capable of decoding the CSS encryption, allowing unlicensed software to access the data on a DVD video disc. Before DeCSS, Linux users had no ability to watch video DVDs on Linux.

In response, his home was raided by Norwegian police in 2000 and the DVD CCA attempted to prosecute him under the Norwegian criminal code. He was ultimately acquitted, but the court process took several years.

libdvdcss

Modern Linux machines don’t use DeCSS. However, through examining the DeCSS code, people realized that CSS was vulnerable to a brute-force attack.  CSS uses 40-bit encryption and doesn’t use every possible key, so it’s an extremely weak type of encryption. A modern computer can crack a DVD’s CSS encryption through brute force – that is, by trying every possible key and seeing which one works – in just a few seconds.

This is what libdvdcss does. With libdvdcss installed on Linux, after you insert a DVD into your computer’s DVD drive, your computer will brute-force its encryption in a few seconds. It may look like the DVD is just opening in VLC, but your computer is cracking the encryption key in the background to make it viewable.

If you don’t have libdvdcss installed, DVDs won’t play back at all.

dvd-in-vlc-without-libdvdcss

Legal Status

Unlike DeCSS, there have been no legal challenges against libdvdcss in particular, although it appears to be illegal under the DMCA.

Court rulings in the US have affirmed that breaking CSS encryption is a violation of the DMCA. RealNetworks once produced RealDVD, an application that allowed users to copy their own DVDs and create digital copies – essentially ripping them, as people rip audio CDs.

The DVD CCA argued that, although Real had licensed CSS encryption support from them, this was a violation of their agreement and a violation of the DMCA. The courts ruled that Real had violated the DMCA’s anti-circumvention measures. Other DVD-ripping applications, such as the popular Handbrake, are also illegal under the DMCA, although they’re widely available on the Internet.

While the DMCA has an exemptions process – this is why it’s legal to jailbreak a phone (but not a tablet) – an exemption has never been granted for watching DVDs on Linux. The government continues to consider this illegal, just as it considers ripping DVDs to your computer illegal.

Update: As of January, it’s not legal to unlock your phone without the permission of the carrier that you bought it from, assuming they locked it in the first place. You can buy an unlocked phone, of course, but that will cost more.

Actually, Linux Has a Few Licensed DVD Players

It was once true that Linux users had to become criminals to watch commercial video DVDs (at least in the USA). However, there are now licensed DVD players available for Linux.

For example, Ubuntu’s Software Center offers the licensed Fluendo DVD Player. This DVD player will cost you $25, although you have probably already paid for licensed DVD-playback software that comes with your computer’s DVD drive in the first place. If you purchased the licensed Cyberlink DVD player, which was previously the only legal option for watching DVDs on Linux in the USA, you probably need to buy the Fluendo DVD Player to play DVDs on modern versions of Ubuntu.

fluendo-dvd-player-in-ubuntu-software-center

In practice, most Linux users will Google up a solution to watching DVDs on Linux and install libdvdcss, which is free and allows them to watch DVDs in VLC and other media players they already use.


We’re not lawyers here, and it’s certainly unclear whether this would stand up in court, just as it’s unclear if the courts would uphold a prosecution against someone for unlocking a cell phone or jailbreaking an iPad. However, this is what the DMCA says.

Laws as bad as this one aren’t restricted to the USA alone – other countries may have similar laws. For example, Canada now has a law that makes “breaking a digital lock” illegal, which would also make this illegal in Canada.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 03/1/13

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