My oldest son met me at the door one day as I came home from work, holding two pieces of his favorite Bob the Builder DVD. “Daddy fix it?” he asked.

I can fix a lot of things, and I’ve learned a lot trying to fix his toys before, but when a DVD is snapped in two, there’s nothing I can do about that.

“What, you didn’t have it backed up?” one of my coworkers asked when I told him. “No,” I said. “And I wouldn’t admit it if I did.”
But perhaps ripping a DVD is legal, after all.

It should be. You paid for the content on the DVD. Whether you play the content straight off the DVD, or whether you play it off a hard drive or flash media shouldn’t matter. The rightsholders got paid. There’s no ethical dilemma there.

I do believe that you should retain the media to secure the rights, of course. If I rip a DVD, then give it to a friend, who gives it to another friend, who gives it to another friend, then we have a problem. There could be dozens of rips floating around, all off a single disc, and the people who made it only got paid once.

But if I buy a bunch of DVDs and want to store them on a flash drive or hard drive for my kids to watch, then stash the originals in the basement, what’s the problem?

I think the problem is that the producers want to sell kids’ DVDs, have them wear out after a year, and have parents have to buy the same content over and over again like vinyl records–the phenomenon that kept Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on the Billboard charts for an astounding 15 years. One of the reasons for it was because people bought the record, wore it out, and re-bought it because they weren’t tired of listening to it yet.

And of course, there’s the question of how to watch a DVD on a portable device, like a phone or tablet, that has video capability but doesn’t have an optical drive. The technical solution is simple–rip the DVD and encode it to a supported format if needed–but if you do it and get caught, you could face a fine or jail time. The same goes for trafficking in tools that do this, which is why I don’t link to any of these tools, even though their use is ethical and perhaps legal.

Robert X. Cringely once theorized that if 10 million people pirated (or ripped) a movie and then turned themselves in and demanded a jury trial, it would clog the legal system up for years so that nothing could get done. Then lawmakers would realize the DMCA is a stupid law and fix it. It’s a nice theory, but everyone’s afraid to test it. For good reason.