Can I rip my DVDs to my iPad?

This sounds like a simple question, but the answer is much more complicated (and frustrating) because there’s more than one law at work here.

The basic answer is: Yes, it is likely legal to rip a DVD to your iPad; but most consumers who rip a DVD to an iPad still face legal consequences.

DVDs typically include embedded technology intended to prevent consumers from making copies. This so-called Digital Rights Management (DRM), works as a sort of digital lock that movie studios (and anyone else encrypting digital content) use to control how consumers use the content. DRM is what makes it difficult to make a back-up copy of a DVD or rip the film to an iPad or any other device. To make a copy, you have to break, or circumvent, the digital lock, and doing that violates a separate federal law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)—even if you’re not breaking the law when you make the copy in the first place.

Additionally, movie studios claim that when consumers purchase a DVD, they are not actually purchasing the film on the disc. Instead, they are buying access to view the film via the format of the type of media they purchased. In other words, they say consumers buy the ability to watch the DVD on a DVD player, but they don’t own the copy of the movie that sits on the DVD.

At this point, you might ask why CDs and DVDs are treated differently here. You may wonder if it’s legal to rip a CD onto a MP3 player or phone, and if so, how and why DVDs are different. The answer requires even more digging.

Yes, ripping a CD onto another device – referred to as “space shifting” – is considered legal. Courts have found that format shifting is fair use and the recording industry has generally conceded that making a digital copy of a CD you own for personal use doesn’t raise legal concerns.

But in 1998, Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The law makes it illegal to circumvent technological measures that control access to a copyrighted work – like the DRM that controls access to the motion picture on a DVD. Although there are some exceptions to this general rule, none are applicable to consumers who just want to put their favorite movie (that they already own on DVD) onto their iPad or laptop or to make a backup copy.

So while a consumer can legally space shift a DVD the same as a CD, the DRM that’s typically on DVDs (and typically absent from CDs) changes the equation. Since you need to circumvent the DRM on the DVD to make your (perfectly legal) copy, you’re still violating the DMCA. Effectively, the DMCA makes it illegal for consumers to do something (space shifting) that is otherwise perfectly legal with the content they have purchased by virtue of the movie studio embedding DRM onto the DVD disc.

The mere fact that the DMCA prevents law-abiding consumers from making legal uses of the content they’ve paid for is bad enough. However, this problem is only getting worse.

Media content is increasingly digital – physical discs are becoming obsolete – and consumers rightly want to access content they’ve paid for on the device of their choosing. The DMCA and DRM make it illegal for consumers to move content into the format that is most usable and convenient for them. As a result, the DMCA makes consumers spend money they otherwise wouldn’t by requiring they repurchase a film if they want to access it in a different format. And consumers who own a DVD with content that is unavailable in a digital format are simply out of luck.

The DMCA established a review process that allows the Copyright Office to make exemptions to the anticircumvention law. Repeatedly, consumers have brought the format shifting issue to the Copyright Office’s attention, arguing that this is fair use; that anticircumvention makes a perfectly legal activity virtually illegal by criminalizing the way to do the thing that remains permissible; and that the type of people who want an exemption to permit format shifting aren’t infringers (infringers don’t worry about the legality of circumvention).

Unfortunately, the Copyright Office has repeatedly denied these requests.