A Somewhat Long Introduction
Here’s a question that was forwarded to me recently – “is there a program you would recommend for ripping a dvd on a pc?”. This came across my Twitter feed, so while I was tempted to write a response, it would have been a long one, meaning it would be several tweets long. Some responses were offered which included using programs such as MPEG Streamclip, VLC, and HandBrake. Another program was mentioned, Free DVD Decrypter, which gets past the “encryption” of a DVD and copies all the files to the hard drive. It’s typical of a number of programs out there. Ever since DVDs have existed, people have had the desire to back those discs up, since DVDs as it turns out are not indestructible and what do you do if it becomes unreadable? The problem is that there are also a few people who want to copy DVDs to give, or even sell to other people, thus breaking copyright laws and essentially committing an illegal act.
The law that governs the “decrypting” of a DVD is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998. If there were no need for decrypting, you could simply copy the files from the DVD to your hard drive and use them as you wish. However, the movie studios, like their record company brethren before them, felt that you can’t just have these digital files so easily copyable. You must prevent copying because stealing (as they call it) is bad. Never mind that people have legitimate needs to backup their movies, or would like to exercise their Fair Use rights to use clips from movies. The DMCA says that any circumvention of the encryption on DVDs (and other digital media) is a criminal act.
As it turned out, the encryption of the digital files on DVDs was pretty feeble. The encryption was broken (or in the vernacular, hacked or cracked) rather easily by a guy from Norway known as “DVD Jon” . Jon is a villain to some, but to others he has enabled law abiding citizens to exercise their rights of limited copying (for home use) and of creating new works (video, music, etc.) by way of the Fair Use clause in copyright law. DVD Jon’s software development skills feature largely in what’s available for people to take advantage of these rights.
This article will be long enough, but I want to start to answer the basic question of “how do I rip a DVD?” Had I answered the question on Twitter (or started to), I would have asked, as I often do, what do you want to do with the video from the DVD? It does make a big difference as to what the answer would be. I’ll try to cover some of the most common scenarios.
First, a very short amount of background on the interaction of DVDs on computers. Standard DVD players that connect directly to your TV have software built into them to play DVDs. Therefore they have the ability to “decrypt” the DVD and show it on your TV. Computers with DVD drives have the basic hardware to read the discs and display the video on screen. However, there is a need for software to act as the intermediary. That raises the dicey question, as it relates to the DMCA, what do you let the software do? As far as the movie studios go, they would say, you can play this movie on your computer and that’s it. But, the computer is reading digital files. What stops someone from copying those files to the hard drive instead of just watching the movie? Well, the encryption stops them (theoretically). Occasionally that encryption also kept people from just playing DVDs on their computers. What if I want to backup my DVD? Now we get into the aspects of the DMCA law. Breaking the encryption makes it easy for anyone to share those files locally or globally (you’ve heard of the Internet, right?). From the movie distributors perspective, if anyone can share these files, then anyone and everyone will. Keep in mind that the DVDs that I am talking about are commercial movies. The video or data DVD that you may have burned yourself on your home computer is not encrypted. You can copy files easily from “homemade” DVDs to your hard drive, without worrying about breaking the law.
So if you haven’t guessed by now, there are tons of DVD decrypter programs out there and they fall into a few different categories with different capabilities. In some cases you need to use the capabilities of one program in conjunction with another. Let me start by talking about one software program that has lots of capabilities and serves a crucial role in many of the solutions to ripping DVDs.
About that term, ripping. What does it refer to? Well, essentially it’s that breaking of the encryption and getting those files off of a DVD. You figuratively are severing the files from media that normally doesn’t let you have the ability to copy files to your hard drive. One example of the software that will play DVDs on your computer is a free program called VLC. Stick a DVD in your computer’s DVD drive and run the VLC software. Choose File>Open Disc… and soon you’re watching movies on your computer. What VLC has built-in is the necessary encryption capability to allow you to watch a DVD. You can even select a menu item to go full screen on your computer (go to Video>Full Screen).
Great, VLC lets you watch DVDs. How does VLC help you rip files? Well, just by having it installed it will coexist with another software program called HandBrake. VLC includes a “library” file, libdvdcss, that allows for the decryption of DVDs. One of the people responsible for this is DVD Jon. A new version of VLC has just been released (v2.0). The HandBrake website will warn you that the Mac version does not include the libdvdcss file. It is a separate install.
HandBrake is really an encoding program. It takes a video file and converts it to a format known as h.264 (a high-quality version of MPEG-4). Specifically you can convert a video to play on various Apple devices such as an iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, or Apple TV. If you’re not in the Apple ecosystem, don’t worry. You can create files that are more universal. When you encode with HandBrake you choose a profile that is appropriate. As you mouse over the profile names, they give you “tools tips” that help explain what they do. The h.264 format is becoming THE web standard, featured quite prominently in what is known as the HTML5 standard. What HandBrake is good at is taking a DVD and converting just the movie (no menus and such) to a playable file that resides on your hard drive. These files would play in QuickTime or iTunes.
Back to VLC, there is also a somewhat hidden feature that allows you to record a portion of a video and save it as a clip to your hard drive. For instance, you would play a DVD on your computer using VLC and press the record feature. That will set the beginning point of a recording. Play the DVD to where you want your clip to end and stop the record feature. The result will be a video on your hard drive. That file will be in MPEG-2 format, so it will be somewhat problematic to use in most editing programs. What you would do next is run the file through HandBrake to give you that h.264 version (use the Regular>Normal profile), which could then be imported into most video editors. This procedure saves you the time of “ripping” the entire DVD with HandBrake.
Now, if you want to put the entire DVD, with menus, special features, etc. on your hard drive, you’ll want to use a program that truly rips the entire disk. Most DVD movie discs come on what are known as dual-layer discs. The reason is that not only do these discs need to hold the movie, they also need room to hold those special features. A standard 4.7 GB disc just won’t hold all that data, so a dual-layer disc that holds about 8.5 GB of data is needed. VLC will play those ripped files from your hard drive, just like they were playing from the original disc. The quality will also be maintained as there is no encoding of the video, just copies of the files.
So in summary, standard DVD decrypter programs don’t encode the movie, they simply copy it to the hard drive in MPEG-2 format. HandBrake encodes the movie (in MPEG-4 format) and in the process makes the file smaller, meaning it takes up less space on the hard drive. HandBrake does such a nice job of encoding that it is very hard to tell the difference from the original. A standard feature film would take up about 2.5 – 4 GB on a hard drive using a decrypter. HandBrake would create a file of about 1 – 1.5 GB. You can see why HandBrake is so popular.
Here is a summary of the software and what it does:
HandBrake (PC and Mac) – A video encoder program that saves files in the h.264 format. Free.
MPEG Streamclip (PC and Mac) – A basic video editing program whose basic function is to extract short clips from video and save them as new files. Free, but the MPEG-2 plugin is $20.
Free DVD Decrypter (PC) – A DVD copier program. Essentially saves the complete file structure of a DVD to a hard drive. Free.
DVD Fab HD Decrypter (PC) – Similar to the above program, but will decrypt Blu-ray as well. Free, with extra features extra.
AnyDVD (PC) – Removes restrictions (copy protections) from DVD, Blu-ray, and HD-DVD discs. 79 Euros.
DVDRipper Pro (Mac) – A Mac decrypter program like Free DVD Decrypter. $20.
FairMount (Mac) – A restriction remover similar to AnyDVD, but only for DVDs. Free.
Mac-the-Ripper – 2.6.6 (Mac) – a decrypter only program written for PowerPC Macs. It will run on Macs up to and including Snow Leopard (OS 10.6), but because there is no PowerPC code (Rosetta) in Lion, it will not run on OS 10.7. There’s a newer version out there, but it may be hard to find. Free.
Make MKV (PC and Mac) – A newish kid on the decrypter scene. Rips DVDs, Blu-ray, or HD-DVD to an MKV (open source) container format. Full quality files using original VC1 and AVCHD (h.264) codecs. Free while in Beta.
We’ll get into more specifics of programs and how-tos in future articles.