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This page is last changed on 22 july 2004.
This page is placed on-line on 18 january 2000.

DVD encryption broken: How do you want to play your DVD today?


If you bought a DVD and want to make a backup copy, something that is your legal right in many countries including The Netherlands, no matter what licence "agreements" some companies use, you will find this can be quite difficult.

If you bought a DVD and want to play it on your Linux of FreeBSD machine, you'll have a hard time finding software to do it. No large companies seem to be interested of marketing such a product. Well, what about open source developments then? There is being worked on, but it's difficult.

Movies recorded on DVD's are encrypted by the so-called Content Scrambling System (CSS). This is done only to prevent legal owners of a copy to prevent making a backup copy and to prevent making anyone who doesn't pay the designers a large sum of money to make a DVD player. It won't stop large pirates anyway, a DVD can still be copied bit-wise. Eric S. Raymond, a well-known open source advocate, wrote about this (see for the full article):

"The real story here, though, is that the DVDCA's [DVD Control Association] central complaint is fraudulent. DVD encryption does nothing to prevent content piracy. A pirate doesn't have to know how to decode DVDs to make bit-for-bit copies of them by the thousands. And no DVD player can distinguish between a legally distributed original and a pirated bit-for-bit copy. The amount of protection content producers get from DVD is exactly zero.


The DVDCA's real issue isn't protection of the market for DVD films, it's control of the market for DVD *players*."

The code to decrypt DVD's can be obtained, but you have to pay a large license fee and sign a non-disclosure agreement. This effectively prevented any development of Linux players.

About security through obscurity

Fortunately, enrcyption that obtains its security by keeping the algorithm secret while applications that use the algorithm are available are flawed by design. It was only a matter of time before it would be cracked, and so it happened. A Norwegian group, Masters of Reverse Engineering (MoRE), cracked the Xing player to find the key it used, and found as a bonus the encryption algorithm, which turned out to be embarasissingly weak. It is described here (see here for a local copy of this site).

One of the reasons it is so weak is the problems the US government makes about the export of strong encryption. For once these stupid export laws have worked in the advantage of the public.

But even if the algorithm was strong, it would stil have been broken sooner or later. Bruce Schneier, a well-known expert in the field of cryptography and author of the standard work "Applied Cryptography", wrote about this:

"The flaw is in the security model. The software player eventually gets the decryption key, decrypts the DVD, and displays it on the screen. That decrypted DVD data is on the computer. It has to be; there's no other way to display it on the screen. No matter how good the encryption scheme is, the DVD data is available in plaintext to anyone who can write a computer program to take it.

And so is the decryption key. The computer has to decrypt the DVD. The decryption key has to be in the computer. So the decryption key is available, in the clear, to anyone who knows where to look. It's protected by an unlock key, but the reader has to unlock it."

See the full story that appeared in Crypto-Gram, his periodic newsletter about encryption issues.

For music DVD's, the industry is now developing an "improved" algorithm. It won't work. It will be broken too, probably sooner than later.

Open-source players

The reverse engineering of the CSS algorithm made the development of freeware DVD players for Linux possible. The Linux program Xine can play encrypted DVD's when you install libdvdcss.

I have a A local copy of the libdvdcss source available.

There are also free tools to save a DVD movie as an unencrypted .vob file to your harddisk (quite a bit of free harddisk space is needed of course. A linux version (source code, for 2.2 kernels it requires also a kernel patch to work), and a windows version (both binary and source) are available.

This player has also another big advantage (except for running under Linux instead of windows): it ignores the region codes the entertainment industry uses to prevent free trade between the continents. Normally, a DVD from the US can not be played in Europe and vice versa unless you hack your DVD player. So the entertainment industry can make extra profits by selling it under different conditions:

"Since this would mean that either European consumers could order DVDs of movies that weren't in the cinema yet or buy their movies at the (much lower) American prices, this would mean a serious cut in the profits of the movie industry, or an increase in the risk they take (since they'd have to begin marketing their movie in multiple continents at the same time).

To counter this ``competitive threat'' (what? a company can't even compete with itself?!) the movie industry came up with the idea of encrypting the DVDs and adding a ``region code''. DVD players would be locked to one region (1 for America, 2 for Europe, etc.) and would not be able to play other DVD movies. That way they could continue to:

This strategy is now circumvented. However, the reaction of the copyright maffia (which includes the entertainment industry) has turned into what was to be expected...

Legal threats

Since the algorithm was developed in secrecy, the industry seems to think they have a right to keep it secret. And because they lobbied for a law against reverse-engineering that made it in the USA, and now even threats Europe now that some of our leaders play doggy to the US, they think they can apply that law world-wide (more US organizations have this strange habit). So now they're sueing website owners who keep this information on their site. Read the stories CNN brought on this subject:

This sort of actions usually work counterproductive on the internet: scientology is beginning to learn that you can't sue criticism away, now it is time for other copyright maffia bosses to learn this lesson. That's the reason I made this webpage and placed it here.

The DVD hardware sellers can be thankfull for this hack, it increases their market. Personally, I didn't want to buy a DVD player until this region code nonsense and the encryption stuff was solved. The same will hold for future blue-ray or HDDVD players. I want to be able to use the data I buy the way I like, not the way some marketing bozo wants me to.

Johan Wevers

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