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30 Days of DRM – Day 02: Region Coding (Markets)

DVDs are a good example of a consumer product that contains several types of TPMs.  Many DVDs include Macrovision (designed to stop copying a DVD to VHS), Content Scramble System or CSS (the subject of important litigation involving DeCSS, a software program created to allow Linux users to play DVDs since they were otherwise unable to do so due to CSS), and region coding.  I think the region coding issue is of particular concern and should be the subject of a specific exception within anti-circumvention legislation.

The premise behind region coding is fairly straight-forward. With DVD region coding, the world is divided into eight regions (Canada and the U.S. form Region One).  Consumer electronics manufacturers have agreed to respect region coding within their products by ensuring that DVD players only play DVDs from a single region.  The net effect is that Canadian-purchased DVDs will play on Canadian-bought DVD players, but DVDs purchased in Europe, Australia, or Asia (all different regions), are unlikely to work on those same DVD players (with the exception of those DVDs that are region coded zero, which can be played worldwide).  The is also true for playing the DVDs on a personal computer – my Macintosh will only allow a limited number of region changes.

Note that the use of region coding has nothing to do with traditional notions of copyright law.  The underlying work may involve a copyrighted work – DVDs and video games regularly use region coding – yet the protection is designed to manipute markets by restricting the ability to use fully authorized copies of works.

The region coding issue is particularly acute in Australia, which has a different region code from Asia or Europe and thus is susceptible to price discrimination on certain digital products.  In fact, the Australian parliamentary committee reviewing DRM exceptions recommended that region coding not receive legal protection, concluding that:

"arguments that region coding TPMs are an essential tool in preventing piracy, that they cannot be separated from other varieties of TPM, and that they are actually copyright protection because they inhibit the possibility of infringement, are not at all persuasive."

Canadians should not be lulled into thinking that they are immune from region coding problems just because we share a region code with the United States.  Canadians who purchase DVDs, video games or other region coded products while abroad will find that they do not work when they get home.  Region coding is also showing signs of moving beyond the entertainment industry.  For example, HP has experimented with region coding in their printer cartridges, restricting the ability to purchase a printer ink cartridge in one region to be used with a printer in another region. 

Region coding is not about copyright, it is about market controls and a loss of consumer property rights.  It should not benefit from additional copyright legal protections that would come from anti-circumention legislation.

22 Comments

  1. C Beauregard says:

    Multiculturalism
    I’d have to question whether region coding is compatible with Canadian multiculturalism. Overseas movies could, I think, be considered cultural artifacts.

    I’d be really interested in seeing someone expand on this…

    c.

  2. On one hand, we would want people in various regions of the world to have access to DVDs at rates that are affordable in their terms – $20 in Canada may be a day (or a week)’s pay in some regions. Region coding permits a creator to make their content affordable in poorer regions without the concern about grey market arbitrage in Western regions.

    There is a difference between region coding and inhibiting the Canadian mosaic. Nothing prevents foreign language content from being released with Region One coding – other than being overwhelmed with competition from often unauthorized copies.

  3. Jhonny Pabón says:

    Censura
    Màs alla de las implicaciones comerciales (diferencia de precios, derechos de distribucion, etc) la regionalización de los DVDS ha producido serios inconvenientes de acceso a los contenidos. En el caso Colombiano, El efecto real ha sido una nueva forma de censura, donde miles de obras que no estan disponibles en region 4, estan fuera de la comercializacion legal en nuestro pais. Además cuando llegan por ejemplo a las Bibliotecas, DVDS Zona 1 (USA), estas no pueden de forma legal reproducirlas o convertirlas a region 0 o 4 (Latinoamerica), porque para hacerlo deben eludir las TPMs. Sucedio por ejemplo con la pelicula Diastole y Sistole de productores Colombianos, que en un principio solo la comercializaron en USA en region 1, de tal forma en Colombia no se podia reproducir.

  4. Austin Corbett says:

    Piracy
    I think it can be easily argued that region coding not only stifles consumer rights, but that, like most DRM it encourages piracy. Specifically, most media content from East Asia must be pirated in order to be watched in North America. Licensing agreements for North American release are rare, and Region 3 DVD’s purchased overseas do not play in North American DVD players.

  5. Dwight Williams says:

    Cultural Issues and Region Coding
    Interesting argument from C. Beauregard. We in Canada may well have a vested societal interest in putting an end to region coding if I understand the argument correctly…?

  6. Reply
    Regarding: “Nothing prevents foreign language content from being released with Region One coding”

    That is pure bs. The fact is that we, as consumers, can’t decide anymore on what we’ll watch. We watch whatever gets released here, at whatever prices they decide. The “competition from often unauthorized copies” does, in many cases, become the ONLY choice. I can’t, for instance, get any shows recorded in Brazil to play here, except for my Linux box with DeCSS. It would become ILLEGAL for me to watch shows from my mother country. How fair is that?

  7. The languages are a far bigger barrier to distribution. Having Cantonese subtitles or overdubbing would make the movie more area specific than the encoding. The encoding simply means that if can’t watch movies you own while you are on vacation in Europe, simply because you come from Canada. Or, like Gus said, it forces teh American cultural melting pot onto us by eliminating all choice.

    All this is due to “piracy”, and the term is used to loosely. The content owners think of it as the reason why they don’t have massive, consistant sales for all content in all parts of the world. “Piracy” is all they can come up with, even though its easy to ask Gus why he prefers entertainment from Brazil. Mostly they want to force Gus to be a good little American consumer, and consume exactly the right amount of American products each month.

    I am with Gus, most “pirates” are people who want to wacth their own content on their own equipment but are forced into buying a foreign copy and converting it. Its the same for people who bought Laser discs, they made their purchase but are prevented by law from watching it.

  8. Kari Manninen says:

    retired
    I can`t believe it is illegal to watch DVDs from other regions i Canada.
    Here i Sweden most DVD players sold are region-free.Never heard of any legal actions against consumers buying DVDs from other regions and watching them.I myself buy a lot of anime DVDs for region 1.There is no problem to watch Japanese releases either,because they are within same region 2 as Europe anyway.In my PC i have one DVD player set in reg 1 and other DVD recorder in reg 2,i use mostly DVDs from those regions.

  9. journalist
    I’ve just recently read that Microsoft’s new Windows Vista will refuse to work with DVD-ROM drives that have their firmware modified to disable region coding. Even without legal support, the technocrats are closing in on us.

  10. Francois Granade says:

    nexB, Inc
    It\’s implied in the article, but I think it\’s worth noting: the goal of the country code is not to prevents customers from using DVD from other regions, but rather to prevent distributors from selling DVD from other regions. Just as for software, direct smuggling by the customer is not a big problem (the number of people who bring back a bootleg copy of Office from Hong-Kong is very low, compared to the number of people who simply copy the CDs from colleagues); it is the potential for very structured \”smuggling\” that\’s a problem for content companies.

    This \”smuggling\” would actually be perfectly legal: contrary to software where the buyer merely gets a license, the buyer of a DVD is its full owner, and therefore cannot be forbidden from reselling it; and exporting or importing DVDs is in most country is legal, provided that the importer pays the customs. Thus, without country code, an interregional market for DVD *could* appear, taking advantage of price differences.

    BTW it is not \”illegal\” to watch DVDs from a different zone on a unzoned DVD: again, contrary to software, the buyer of a DVD does not agree to a \”user agreement\” that would control what he can or cannot do. He has full ownership and can do whatever he wants with it. Correct me if I\’m wrong.

    One little side note: I write \”a interregional market *could* appear\”, because I personally believe that the economics of electronic sharing are way more complex that anyone things (proof the internet), and that a lot the DRM is based on incorrect assumptions of the market for cultural goods, and incorrect assumptions of the user behaviors. But that\’s another story altogether.

  11. Dave
    I too believe that the current ‘Region Restriction’ coding is very wrong, and anti-competitive.

    DVD Manufacturers that want to playback films with CSS have to obtain a CSS license, and that means they HAVE to restrict the region to whatever is on the disc.

    This leads to price fixing etc. There are LOTS of titles that are simply not available as region 2, only region 1.
    How can a person in region 2 legally watch it (without buying a second dvd player – possibly importing it?)

    If a person from country 1 went into a book shop in country 2 and tried to buy a book, and the shop keeper said ‘no, you can’t have/read it becasue you’re from country 1′. The shop keeper might be arrested under racism law. Why are DVDs any different?

    I understand that standard def film dvd’s are encoded slightly differently in PAL/NTSC countries due to the number of lines (it may be better quality to encode region 2 discs in PAL format, etc.), but this should only give a region ‘warning’ or something and definately not stop a purchaser from watching something. With High Definition DVDs (HD-DVD & Blu-Ray) this is no longer relavent.

  12. Regioning madness
    I\’ve been working abroad for the last decade, the vast majority of that time in the UK. Consequently, the vast majority of my DVD collection is region 2. I\’m now looking at a move back to North America. The Studios would have me re-purchase my DVD collection all over again in Region one?

  13. Region codes encourage piracy
    Taras asks if the movier industry wants her (or him?) to re-purchase all their collected DVDs again. That’s exactly what they want, and they’re proud of it. The answer will be, before you leave Europe, to get hold of a good quality DVD player capable of NTSC output, and offering component or RGB video out, or at least S-video (and remeber that in the US they don’t have SCART connectors. Make sure that it’s region-free before you sign the cheque. Shouldn’t be hard to find, shouldn’t cost more than EUR 200 absolute tops..

    Here in New Zealand we and our Australian neighbors are, says Hollywood, in Region 4, along with our cultural compadres in Latin America, with whom we don’t share a language, culture, history, colonial experience or even movie industry. The people with whom we do share most or even all of those things are off in Region 1 or Region 2. What Hollywood arrogance is this?

    Which means we have to tag along and get in line behind the Americans to see even the movies that are made here – little insignificant productions like Lord of The Rings and King Kong and Narnia…

    Fortunately, pretty well all DVD players sold here are region-code free out of the box, and the system is widely disregarded.

    But there’s no doubt that the stupid, un-necessary region code system is designed for only one thing – to distort the market – and the MPAA is too stupid to realise that it simpke means lots of people copy DVDs so they can see them, and that if there were no damn region codes, there would be less piracy. Not least because the MPAA counts playing a disk ‘out of region’ as piracy.

    Go figure.

    Philip

  14. Like Taras
    Like Taras I too have moved around a bit, Europe, N.America, and Asia, and have found region coding nothing more than a pain in the arse. For example, I love European movies. Unfortunately, I can’t buy them here. I have friends in Europe that can buy them for me… but then (if it weren’t for Linux) I wouldn’t be able to watch them. What kind of garbage is that? How about my very large collection of DVD’s which have been purchased from different places around the world??? When I purchase a DVD I purchase a license to watch the DVD. Unfortunately region encoded DVD’s are literally “Broken” the moment you leave that region. So the studions should replace my collection every time I move. I hate region coding and DRM. They’ve given me nothing but grief and interoperability problems.

  15. Rimas Kuras says:

    RE: Interregional markets
    The Baltic states are an *existing* “interregional” market where customers suffer from these stupid region codes. According to Hollywood’s understanding of the world, the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) are region 5 (former USSR). But as these countries are now members of the EU, they now belong to region 2. As a result we have both regions on the market (with the same price levels, of course).

    You cannot stick to one region if you want to watch movies from both parts of the world. (Yes, there are not only movies made in Hollywood.)

    Apart from that, many DVD sold in region 5 have a different or reduced set of languages – mostly only russian and english. And many of these DVD have some strange restrictions, e.g. when you watch the original audio version of the movie you are forced to have russian subtitles (“The Matrix”).

  16. Moviebuff
    I guess this isn’t news to anyone, but many DVD-players can be made region-free (and sometimes Macrovision free) with their own remote controller (search the ‘net for your model or one to be purchase). Where I live the salesperson may even give your the instructions how to do this (illegal I guess but that’s competition…). Similarly there is software to reset region change counter or even disable it altogether for DVD drives.

    I guess player and drive manufacturers do not really want to pay for robust DRM by implementing it in hardware. More SKUs.

    Another related issue is that players do not let you skip the copyright notices and another announcements before you even get to movie menu. There may even be ads but they at least are skippable, for now. These really start to chafe after a while. This has caused me to rip and recode some of *my* *own* more often watched movies! This reduces the wear of the original though.

    This just proves that what DRM and likes do is to create a need and therefore a market for circumvention methods and devices to make movie watching more enjoyable. While illegal, it will still happen. Just like with drugs.

    Let’s see how long HD-DVD/BluRay withstand the assault…

  17. Freedoms
    Kari Manninen: it’s not illegal, we’re just worried that the government is going to create a totally one sided copyright law that legally enforces region encoding.

    fungo: Microsoft’s excuse for pulling support for these drives is that the pre 2000 drives they were using to test support are all dying out. See [ link ]
    However, one should ask who is responsible for the region code enforcement being moved into hardware after the year 2000 in the first place. All of this erosion of our freedom to use the hardware we buy both scares and angers me. One of the biggest reasons why I use free software is so that nobody has the power to force me to run whatever they want on my computer, and if someone wants to restrict my freedom using software, they can’t. It’s not the only reason, but it should be the reason that convinces anybody who can admin their way out of a wet paper bag that they should switch away from Windows or Mac OS, and also stay away from hardware that won’t even let you run your own code on it.

    Also, this is off topic, but the comment interface just has Name with a line above it, and Title with a line above that. Consider changing the background colour of the text boxes that reside above those lines so that we know where to enter the text. I highlighted Title and hit backspace, which caused me to move back a page and lose my work.

  18. offtopic, command interface
    Thanks Simon80, got bitten too and should have mentioned it. Bloody captcha overlaps with area for the text “Title”.

    Reminds me why I used to write these in an editor then copypaste.

  19. Region-coded DVD players exist?
    I’m surprised that so many people in the US (and Canada) are having these problems with DVD players. I’ve lived in Germany for six years now and have got used to the region-free players they sell here. This is not grey-market stuff. If you go into a big-name eletronic goods store they’ll often sell you DVD Player X with regional encoding for €YYY and without regional encoding for €YYY plus a few Euro more (say 20 EUR). Obviously, most people opt for the latter. The “de-regional-encoding” procedure is done in-store, while you wait! Not all DVD players can be so altered, but since I refuse to buy a regionally-encoded DVD player, I pay them scant attention. I’ve never bought a DVD from the States, but since I regularly watch DVDs from Europe and Russia I’d otherwise need two players if I wanted to watch them all.

    Just as a side-note, my favorite Region Code would have to be 8: Airlines/Cruise Ships. How about that for restricting your playback options? *G

    Hence my surprise at the position in the US.

    (Then again, Germany is pretty liberal in comparison to what I read in the news about the US and consumers’/citizens’ rights. And it seems that the UK is following suit, sadly.)

  20. Chipping
    Well, the fact that there ARE region free players makes the argument somewhat moot. In the video game console industry, there’s only one manufacturer of each system (normally) and you see all sorts of interesting things with the region coding, namely the market that’s opened up for mod chips. I’d wager that if they ever found a way to take legal action against companies selling region-free DVD players, you’d start to see DVD player mod chipping. There’s no way for the industry to avoid this, so they’ll move on to attempting to pass anti-circumvention legislation so they can sue anyone and everyone who looks at their hardware in a way they don’t like.

  21. Sweden
    Hi, Sweden here. One of my friends bought some DVD’s from the US. He was really pissed off when he became aware that they were unplayable (he has an old region-coded DVD-player), because of Region Code crap. I send him AnyDVD (the little nifty app that strips ‘protection’ on the fly on the PC, so he at least could see those movies at the PC. Another workaround is to have the PC as the player (with AnyDVD running) and send the signal to the projector or TV. PS. I’m surprised that people still seem to buy Region Coded DVD players. I wouldn’t touch one of those even with gloves on…

  22. Hi there

    I live in Switzerland where it is difficult to find Region restricted DVD players, but that point aside, I work in the IT sector, and do not actually own a “normal” DVD player, all my DVD playing is done via my MAC or PC. The cost of DVD drives for these machines is now so low, that if you, as I wish to watch say Region 2, Region 1 and Region 6 DVDs, then you simply purchase two extra DVD drives and as I have label them “Reg1″, “Reg2″ and “Reg6″.

    What on earth the media business thinks it is doing attemping to implement the same technology yet again with the up and comming hi density media I have no idea.

    The market I work in is media distribution, and if, as I suspect over the next 5-10 years 90% of media distribution will be by streaming, or download, regionalising is a pointless excercise. Those who have not heard of proxies soon will, and all the DRM creators/hackers do, is line the pockets of the likes of Microsoft. If a product is offered for sale to download free of restrictions, then 95% of people will pay for it. The “kids” pirating of media noone will ever stop, though in my day it was tape-tape :-); because if they cannot copy it, they cannot afford it, simple really!