The third stupidest thing in the world

The third stupidest thing in the world is …

DVD region encoding.

You know, the technological crippling that means a DVD bought in the USA won’t work in Europe and vice versa.

Back in the days of video tapes, there was good (if not great) reason why videos from one region wouldn’t work in the other: they were encoded with different numbers of lines per frame, to match the TVs available in the region (NTSC in America, PAL in Europe).  This was not a good situation, but one could see how it came about.

But DVDs intrinsically work anywhere — at least, playing NTSC DVDs on PAL players isn’t a problem.  So: here’s how DVD region encoding works.  Each DVD contains a data field saying “Region 1″, or 2, or whatever.  And each DVD player also has such a field telling where it was bought.  When you put a DVD in the player, the player runs code that checks whether the DVD’s region matches its own, and if not, refuses to play.

Just think about that for a moment.  The hardware Just Works.  And the software contains extra code, added to prevent it from working.  That, my friends, is a pretty good definition of stupidity: “doing additional work in order to achieve less”.

Now consider my all-time favourite TV series, Veronica Mars.

I came across this first in a series of very positive reviews over at Asking the Wrong Questions, and I was intrigued enough that I wanted to see it — but I couldn’t find DVDs here in the UK, and so far as I can tell, they don’t exist.

Of course I could have bought the American DVDs, but when what?  My DVD player will reject them (thanks to that specially added piece of code!  Thanks!)  At that stage, I had three options:

  • Hack my DVD player to remove the region-checking code.  This is of course a circumvention measure, and hence illegal.
  • Make region-free copies of the DVDs and play them on my UK DVD player.  This is of course a circumvention measure, and hence illegal.
  • Download ripped copies of the show.  This is NOT a circumvention measure, and paradoxically may not even be illegal.  I am not 100% sure on this point.

so I downloaded a set of Season 1 videos and loved the show to bits.  (I won’t go into the reasons right now, as that would take me way off topic, but one day I will.)

But!  Please!  Come on, Warner Home Video, I am trying to give you my money!  In exchange for watching your show!  Isn’t that, oh, I don’t know, YOUR BUSINESS MODEL?

So let’s look carefully at this.  I want to pay good money for a set of DVDs.  But if I do so, there is no legal way that I can watch them.  And this is because the DVD industry has gone out of its way to make it so.  What is this I don’t even.

Well, in this particular case there is a more-or-less happy ending.  I eventually found that I could buy legitimate Region 2 DVDs of Veronica Mars from amazon.de — yes, they are available in Germany but not in England.  (60 Euros is £50, which is superb value for all three seasons constituting 64 episodes).  But I had a heck of a time bludgeoning my way through the purchase process in a language that I don’t know, and of course all the cover text is also in German.  (Happily, the DVDs have the original English-language sound track.)

This is stupid, isn’t it?

Really, really stupid.

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39 responses to “The third stupidest thing in the world

  1. And the very same applies to console’s games. Funny how great games were released in japan and never reached europe or north america.

    Well, hacking the dvd player in order to make it region free, is not entirely illegal, simply you break the warranty. If it goes boom it’s all on you dude. It’s illegal removing copy protection systems, as long as you play original content, you should be safe.

    Hacking a console in order to play import games it’s equally not against the laws, simply the producer won’t respond if it breaks. Even in this situation, as long as you play original content, you’re not breaking any law.

    I don’t know if region coding also applies to blue-ray disks, surely it’s a big big mess.

    regards

    Big Mike (from Italy)

  2. What a pain! One of my friends encountered a DVD region code problem with her laptop when she studied abroad. The engineers actually took the time to allow people to change their DVD drive’s region code a limited number of times, but after that it’s stuck.

    About a year ago I attended a talk by Benjamin Mako Hill where he defines these sorts of problems as ‘antifeatures’. He maintains a wiki page where people can share antifeatures (see http://wiki.mako.cc/Antifeatures).

  3. I don’t think hacking your DVD player is illegal. It’s *your* hardware are and you can do whatever you want with you. Reverse engineering is legal through fair use laws.

    Of course this depends by country, but I doubt in your country it’s any different.

    It’s the same reason iPhone jailbraking is legal. Of course, the vendor can void your warranty, but that’s another thing.

  4. Daniel Binau

    When can we expect blog posts about the stupidest and second-stupidest things in the world? :-)

  5. The primary reason they did the region encoding, as I understood it, is to more easily separate sales into different economic zones.

    In say, China, people survive on what amounts to a paltry number of American dollars, but can still live comfortably, because of the nature of their economy. An American movie sold at 20$ is beyond their price range. So the studios sell the movies at (to us) ridiculously low prices in China (like, 1$) because it matches that local economy, and because they want to gain marketshare.

    However, what prevents someone from just buying the movies in/from China, and importing them to the United States, where 20$ for a DVD isn’t (relatively) very much at all?

    The answer: forcibly region-locking, to prevent imports. (It just creates stupid things when dealing with United States/Europe).

    In short, it’s an example of intentional price discrimination.

  6. This is all just a variation of DRM and General Stupidity imho..

    (General Stupidity is .. ebooks that stop working after awhile because the company nolonger supports them and thus cannot unlock something you’ve already bought for you, or the bits of a DVD that cannot be skipped because my two year old desparately needs to see FBI warnings and 10 unskippable commercials before Dora, etc.)

    DRM .. as a non-USian its extra bad as I’m sure much of reprog audience knows. As a Canadian, video and ebooks are nigh impossible to obtain; no Netflix, and presumably cdotracts blocking any useful amount of content from being sold here. (amazon’s DRM-free mp3s? nope. Video at xbox marketplace, netflix, anywhere… nope. ebooks from anywhere? nope. Granted, at least itunes now has ‘drm free’ stuff, but thats only one location (no options), and is low quality AAC (128k, really?!))

    So many companies just seem to be going out of their way not to take our money. (BBC, listen up — thankfully the pricing is now more in line with every other show; DW and Torchwood being 2x any other show was annoying! We’ll all buy the entire DW classic catalog, but for Big$-per-story, no one can afford it! We’ll line up if its sensible $/hour.)

    At one point I worked out a $/entertainment-hour threshhold, and it was interesting that it came out to a relatively consistent value across media.

    TV shows; The Wire was fantastic, and getting 5 seasons (about 55 or 60 hours) for $100 .. about $2/hour.

    Movies; I’m pretty willing to pay that same amount for a splurge, otherwise (since DVDs take up too much space) I’m willing to only buy a few exceptionals. The Godfather pack I just picked up was all 3 movies (about 10 hours rounded up or considering some of the pack ins) was $25 … say $2-$3 per hour. For one movie for $40 .. no way, too far out of the ratio, but a 3 hour movie for $10 — thats about in line.

    Ebooks .. sure, work it out to about $2-$3 per reading hour, and I’m okay with that.

    Music is the one that throws you off – $10 ofr a 1 hour album is way out of line, but as a given you’ll listne to an album a few times, I’ll let it slide.

    To sum – we’re here, we want to give money – just make the value worth the price, and for the love of Crom, make it available _at all_.

    Mike — you’ve been posted pretty consistrntly a couple time sa week for months; summer hiatus, or too many bird skulls? :)

  7. When can we expect blog posts about the stupidest and second-stupidest things in the world?

    Indeed, I’m waiting on a post regarding Visual Basic too. (zing)

  8. @Kevin : funny your comment reminded me of a quote I’ve read somewhere on the net:

    “There are just two kind of programmers, “Real Programmers” and people knowing Visual Basic.”

    Well, guess it’s just a matter of tastes. VB has actually grown to be quite a good language (still I prefer old C, being it visual or not).

    PS: for the stupidest thing guess I have to say Java :P

  9. I’ve always been of the impression that regions were there to increase profits by separating economies with technology, as geography doesn’t help as much with online retailers. Given this reasoning, I see the logic. It’s still a load of bantha fodder, though, as I’d assume some region is always paying more to, in a way, subsidize other less-wealthy regions.

  10. Don’t just blame the producers of the DVD.. also blame the maker of the DVD player. Without them actually holding to the region rules it wouldn’t be a problem..

    That said, its fairly easy (at least over across the pond in the US) to find region-free dvd players..

  11. My family is spread out all over the map on 3 continents. Needless to say, region codes and PAL/NTSC encoding differences are anathema to us. What did I do? I found a local vendor that sells DVD-VHS players that play everything! Region-0 for DVDs and both PAL or NTSC for DVDs and VHS tapes. I paid a premium for the unit (Panasonic) when I got it 4 years ago, but they are still in business selling unlocked DVD/VHS players.

  12. @ Jake Mitchell
    I hate the fact that laptop DVD players will lock the device hardware to the last set region code after some small number of changes (4 or 5 generally). There are software hacking tools that will, if applied before it gets locked, set the code to region 0, effectively allowing you to play any region DVD without changing the code again. Unfortunately, since the code locking is, as far as I am aware, a permanent change, once it is locked you are SOL.

    BTW, the unlocked Panasonic DVD/VHS player I got 4 years ago was under full manufacturer’s warranty when I got it, though it has never given me an iota of trouble (knock on wood). Yes, if I hacked it myself, it would have violated the warranty, but since the vendor is an authorized Panasonic (and other manufacturers) reseller, repair depot, and whatever, they can either get the units set to region 0 from the factory, or can set them without violating the warranty.

  13. Thanks to all for comments! It’s nice to know that you haven’t all forgotten me during the recent posting hiatus :-)

    Aram, I maybe mistaken about the legality of hacking my DVD player, but my understanding was that we in the UK had adopted some dumb DMCA-like legislation that makes it illegal to circumvent protection even if you have legitimate access to the material whose protection you’re circumventing. Which is not just stupid, but iniquitious.

    Daniel, I do indeed plan to also post on the second and most stupid things in the world, but I started with this one because I am counting down from three to one.

    Keith B (and others) I do understand the supposed economic motivation for DVD regions; but it takes a wilfully blind industry to think that this can possibly result in anything other than widespread jailbreaking, piracy and ill feeling. For all the region-locked DVDs, DRM’d eBooks and USA-only streaming services, the only content dissemination technology that’s been shown to work reliably all around the world is bitTorrent.

    Jeff, yes, I know my posting frequency has been way down. It’s been partly to do with summer, partly ostrich skulls, and also partly that I am finally doing a very boring but important job that I have been putting off for far too long, and that’s been taking up most of the evening time when I’d previously been blogging. What is that very boring job, I hear you ask? Stay tuned, it’ll be the subject of my next post.

  14. Another somewhat related problem that I face is that they don’t launch all seasons in all places. So I bought the first 4 seasons of Buffy, just to find out that they didn’t release the last ones here in Brazil. Same thing happened with Angel (bought only the first one in this case) and with The West Wing (have 6 seasons, they didn’t launch the 7th one here). If you ask me, worst than not releasing something in your region, is releasing only parts of it (so that you actually spend money on it, but you’ll never be able to legally finish watching the stuff).

  15. I wanted to buy a complete set of the Batman: The Animated Series DVDs.

    Only Volume 1 was released Region 4; the other three never were. In Australia, it’s actually legal to use a “region free” player, but my XBox 360 doesn’t qualify.

    What’s really annoying is that the movie studios bitch and whine about losing sales to piracy… whilst at the same time actively preventing people from buying from them legally.

    There really aren’t strong enough words for this level of absolute, unmitigated stupidity.

  16. Ha, even worse Blu-ray discs have the same whacked out problem, except they shuffled the regions around just to be funny (though thankfully Region 1 is Asia + US [why, wtfk?], so you can buy something in Hong Kong and work in the US).

  17. Even with DMCA, it’s quite legal (in the U.S.) to buy a dvd-player that ignores region codes. Harder to find and sometimes more expensive.

    In fact, I recently bought a new name-brand, region-free player that turned out was a machine that started out from the manufacturer as region-encoded, then the secondary vendor used the built-in unlock codes and re-sold it as region-free with about a 20% markup, for knowing the codes I guess (to be fair, they included a non-original 110-220 voltage regulator as well so it could truly be used anywhere).

    The unlocked machine was for sale on Amazon (U.S.) and advertised as region-free, so I’m guessing it was legal. I’ve since learned the unlock code and it’s straightforward but not documented, I’m not even going to guess about the legality of turning on and off a wholly available option on the player, is that really circumvention?

    The biggest joke: the advertisement for the machine direct from the manufacturer makes a BIG deal about the fact that it plays PAL as well as NTSC and can therefore read any global format… while neglecting to mention except in tiny fine print that it’s locked up and that they won’t directly tell you the unlock codes! A good case of “not-fit-for-purpose” I think…

  18. Mike,

    As a side note, the whole reason I bought the region-free player – getting the last season of the Doctor direct from UK well ahead of the U.S. release to catch up with your reviews – just came through last night as the dvds were delivered and we started in… happy campers :)

    I was v. pissed off at the region-code annoyance (throwing manuals across the room at one point), but getting the region-free player means you just forget all about those barriers and enjoy… except for the Next Great Stupid Annoyance: the previews, the Interpol warnings, and no direct skip-to-menu.

  19. @squid — a lot of people are moving to htpc’s now; a little quiet low-heat PC for watching video; VLC (or XBMC) etc sure as heck will let you skip to menu; with a decent UI (some apps do, most do not) and a wireless input method (wireless mouse is sure clumsy, but some of them let you use a wireless or IR remote) and it could be the holy grail. ie: Mac Mini is pretty well suited, with DVI or HDMI out and coming bundled with a little remote… and VLC being trivial to set up.

  20. @Jeff – yeah, I suppose it’s about time for my biennial check and see if they’re quiet and just works enough yet. Last time I fiddled with making an old box a myth-based box but it came out a bit too high on the fiddle/seamless results ratio (at least when taking the whole family, and especially as you say remotes, in mind).

  21. I bought a region-free DVD player for about $50. A lot of the cheap ones don’t have region protection, and they play just fine. (I also have a multiformat VHS player and a format converter for when I get weird old VHS tapes.) I hate having to miss anything.

    There is a lot of stuff you can only get in Germany or online via Germany. Thank you amazon.de. I wanted a 1970s mini-series The Last Days of Pompei about a lot of over heated actors chewing the scenery and destroying the ancient city of Pompei. (It’s a hoot.) It never even came out on DVD, but there it was on amazon.de. It even had the original English sound track and a dubbed German track. The entire god awful science fiction series Lexx, about, well, you don’t want to know what it was about, but there was a great scene with all the brains of the former rulers of the galaxy, now in glass jars, having to sing bad Gilbert and Sullivan parodies. It was classified as toxic waste here in the States, but there it was on amazon.de, complete with an English dub.

  22. Darren Stephens

    @werelord but here’s the thing: they’re usually the same company. Take Sony, who still encode DVD’s in this way, then sell players to circumvent their own region protection.

    I fail to see how this is anything other than bone-headed business model fore everyone concerned

  23. @Kaleberg

    The world leaders’ brains in in glass jars on Lexx or world leaders’ heads in glass jars on Futurama, which was first with the idea? :-)

  24. @werelord:

    Actually, the hardware makers are wholly at the mercy of the disk makers (at least in the USA). To legally decrypt the disks, they *must* include code that prevents skipping portions of the disk (for FBI warnings and such) and a *single* region. As to the legality of imported region-free devices, I don’t know – I do highly doubt it’s legal to sell them *from* the USA, though.

  25. Pingback: DVD region encoding: doing additional work in order to achieve less | markjeee.com

  26. Stefan Moser

    I think there’s an additional angle to the separation of economic zones alluded to by others in this thread. As mentioned by those others, one is surely the issue of setting the average price for some DVD content in relation to the average purchasing power within the respective zone. However, there’s also the matter of product tiering: The “main sequence” of e.g. a movie is in terms of availability probably roughly goes like this: Cinema > DVD/Streaming > Pay TV > Free TV > Bargain Bin. Some may actually coincide, such as free TV and bargain bin or are reversed from this order (I’m hardly an expert in this), but however it actually looks, we can all rest assured that it is finely tuned to maximize the profit. In theory at least. Now enter the fact that releases of movies and TV series outside the U.S are often several months behind their domestic appearance. Why this is so, I can only speculate. My personal guess is it has something to do with adjusting the additional budget needed to market and localize the content in other countries (which by and large are more fragmented and smaller than the U.S. market) according to its U.S. domestic success. A U.S. box office stinker won’t get the same treatment over here (in particular in the non English speaking countries), while a smash hit might benefit from even more aggressive marketing etc. In any case, it is often the case that the U.S. DVD release of a movie is some weeks or months ahead of its theatrical release in say, continental Europe. It is not hard to see why the content owners (much less the cinema operators) wanted to avoid that you could actually _use_ that DVD. In fact, here in Switzerland the local Best Buy equivalent and many specialty outlets would sell region 1 grey imports along side region 2 and most every DVD player was sold unlocked right out of the box (in fact the domestic distributor for a given brand would do this because the player was virtually unsellable otherwise). At least this was so for a few years, until the powers that be outlawed grey imports of DVDs and the like, pretty much out of the blue. I wonder why. Anyway, time traveling back to ca. 1995 when the DVD was introduced, region encoding would make very much sense, at least in the eyes of the content owners / profit maximizers. But enter broadband internet & peer to peer protocols and you end up with situation Mike described: You end up downloading a torrent even if you don’t really want to, because the content hasn’t been made available to you yet, for whatever obscure reason. Well, back in the day, not many people could imagine that within a scant few years you actually _could_ download whole movies in DVD quality in a matter of minutes, least of all the content owners who seemingly can’t wrap their collective head around it very much to this day. At least it would explain why they had to carry the whole mess over to BluRay. Anyway, what I really, really frigging hated with a passion was region encoding for console games (back when I had time to play games). Boy, don’t even get me started. Now _there’s_ a stupid idea if there ever was one. At least they kinda saw the light and dropped it for the current generation, at least on the PS3 (for games mind you. BluRay Movies, no).

  27. Re. studio rationale behind region codes.

    As I recall it, the original rationale behind region codes was simply to allow the studios the ability to do two things. One is so they can release a title in different regions at different dates, and two was so that if they wanted to, they could keep something from being released in some regions, mostly because of the possibility of content being objectionable to some cultures. I think there was a third rationale which may or may not have been spoken of, and that is that they could make sure that movies were released in their market before counterfeiters in other regions could make copies to distribute, which is ridiculous on the face of it. At this point, there is, in my mind at least, absolutely no reason for region codes whatsoever.

  28. It’s not as bad as that. Search the Internet a bit. Most DVD players have the code, yes, but most of them also have “an easy” way of disabling it. IIRC on my Philips all I needed to do was press some special combination on the remote-control then a new option on the settings menu appeared that allowed me to disable region checking.

  29. Mike, I did look into this, but there is apparently no way of jailbreaking my DVD player (Panasonic DMR-ES10) in software — you have to mess with the hardware to get it to play non-region-2 disks. (And even if that weren’t true, it wouldn’t change the core fact that this is just plain dumb. I shouldn’t have to get all Skr1pt k1ddie just to watch a DVD that I have bought legitimately.)

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  33. With as cheap as DVD players are these days, the easiest solution is probably just to buy an American DVD player to set next to your European DVD player.

  34. Pingback: The music industry finds another way to shoot itself in the foot | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  35. Thgir-Ertnec

    I’m pretty sure that you can still play the DVD on your computer…

  36. Actually, most PC DVD drives will let you run other region codes, but after so many changes (usually about 5-6) they will lock you into the last used region. This is why I have an unlocked, multi-region/multi-format DVD player – it handles all regions and both PAL and NTSC formats. Alternatively, I rip the DVD on my computer, removing both CSS encryption and region codes (converts to region 0, playable anywhere), and then burn the image back to a writable DVD disc (costs about $0.50 USD these days).

  37. *sigh* What a moronic waste of your time.

  38. Agreed! That we should have to resort to such antics in order to preserve our videos, is IMHO truly moronic! :rolleyes:

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