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REGIONAL CODING

 

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Friday 8th December 1995, mark it well because that’s the nearest thing the DVD format has to an official ‘birthday’. History was written, and re-written on that day when two competing groups of hardware and software companies settled a long running dispute and issued a statement concerning the basic technical standards for the video disc system we now call Digital Versatile Disc.

 

Up until that point there had been the Super Density optical disc -- also known as the Digital Video Disc -- developed by the SD Alliance, a consortium led by Toshiba, Matsushita, Time Warner and Thomson, and the rival Multimedia CD, or MCD system, pioneered by Sony and Philips.

 

Intense pressure to prevent a potentially damaging format war from breaking out in the consumer marketplace followed discussions between the warring factions, major Hollywood studios and the computer industry. The latter group was largely responsible for the clumsy name change from Digital Video Disc to Digital ‘Versatile’, reflecting the format’s potential as a carrier of large volumes of computer data, as well as movies, whilst Hollywood studio bosses made it clear that no system would get their blessing unless the issue of a ‘country lock’ was addressed. This had been a particularly touchy subject for the American movie industry, which meant to retain its firm word-wide control over the release and distribution of pre-recorded movies.

 

Before DVD came along the differences between American and European TV standards had limited the number of recordings on VHS tape and Laserdisc being sold outside the US. In theory NTSC recordings could not be played on PAL equipment, though in practice many VCRs and Laserdisc players sold in Europe could play or be modified to play NTSC recordings; nevertheless only relatively small numbers of US tapes were exported and it wasn’t considered to be a major problem. However, by the mid 1990s the Internet was starting to take off. Hollywood could see which the way the wind was blowing and foresaw the potential for buying on-line and an unfettered international trade in discs.

 

This would have a number of ramifications for the studios. It could interfere with carefully coordinated US and international theatrical release dates that are designed to maximise cinema audiences and a few months later, sales or rentals of pre-recorded tapes and discs. Staggered release dates also makes the most efficient use of expensive cinema prints, which are circulated in overseas markets after the US run. The studio’s other big fear was that the higher picture and sound quality would enhance the ability of pirates to produce illicit copies of movies, further undermining the studios own markets and distribution channels. To some extent that had already been taken care of as various copy protection and scrambling systems had been incorporated into the DVD specification from day one, but none of these could address Hollywood’s primary concern.

 

Thus in late 1995 Regional Coding came to pass, much to the dismay of everyone outside the US with an interest in the future of home cinema. The revised specification for the fledgling DVD system included two key extra details, namely that discs would have to carry a single byte of data identifying its regional status, and players would only be able to play discs intended for the region in which they were sold. 

 

The instruction books supplied with many DVD players continue to suggest that there are six Regions or ‘Locales’ when in fact there are eight, or nine, depending how you count them. Regions are identified on discs and players by a little globe logo, superimposed with the number (or numbers, in the case of discs that can be played in more than one Region). For the record they are:

 

Region 1 is the good old US of A, Canada and US territories.

Region 2 includes Europe, Japan, South Africa the Middle East and Egypt. Region 3 is East Asia (including Hong Kong) and Southeast Asia.

Region 4 covers Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Region 5 is Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, the Indian sub continent, Africa, Mongolia and North Korea.

Region 6 is China.

Region 7 has been reserved, we know not for what.

Region 8 is designated ‘Special International Venues’, which are cruise ships and aircraft.

Region 0 indicates the disc has no regional coding data and will play on any DVD machine

 

Before we move on we should say a few words about the differences in TV systems and have a quick look at Macrovision, since both topics seem to cause a fair amount of confusion, and it’s not hard to see why…

 

First TV systems; basically the same PAL/NTSC issues apply to DVD as they do on VHS tape and Laserdisc. In other words, although the information recorded on the disc is in a ‘standard’ form – i.e. MPEG 2 compressed digital data  -- the picture that it represents is formatted by the disc manufacturer either as a 525-line/60Hz (NTSC) or a 625/50 (PAL/SECAM) video signal. Most Region 2 DVD players can replay NTSC discs, provided they are Region 0 (region free), but – and this is where it gets complicated -- these machines will usually output a ‘raw’ NTSC video signal, so the picture can only be viewed on a multi-standard TV. Some players have an additional facility to convert the colour information in the video signal from NTSC to PAL, but they leave the line/frame structure in its native NTSC format; this is called a PAL 60 video signal. This takes advantage of the fact that most recent PAL TVs can display a 525-line/60Hz picture because key picture processing microchips are the same in TVs made for PAL and NTSC markets; the DVD player takes care of the colour signal conversion, so you get a colour picture. Clear as mud eh?

 

Macrovision is one of four copy protection schemes used by DVD and is designed specifically to stop users running off high quality ‘analogue’ copies on VHS tape. (The other systems are mainly concerned with stopping digital copies being made on digital PCs, digital VCRs and recordable DVD machines). Macrovision messes around with the video signal in various ways, not enough to impair TV picture quality, but sufficient to confuse a VCR and make recordings pulsate in brightness and wobbly with unstable colours. Macrovision has nothing to do with the discs, the player adds the spoiler signals and it’s written into the spec, in other words all players must have it. On some players the Macrovision circuitry can be disabled. Since the clear intention of doing so would be to make it possible to produce illegal ‘pirate’ copies of DVD movies, it is not something we can possibly condone, moreover it will almost invariably invalidate the player’s warranty, so let us speak of it no more.

 

Which brings us back to the matter in hand, namely regional coding and the thorny subject of disabling or ‘hacking’ a DVD player’s region lock. On the general point of whether it’s right or wrong, we can dismiss any suggestion that it’s illegal; where you buy discs from and what you do with a DVD player in the privacy of your own home is your business. But there are other points to consider and once again we have quite clear views on the matter. If unlocking a player or switching region code involves removing the lid, adding or removing components or making any physical changes to the machine then this automatically wipes out the manufacturer’s guarantee, we certainly can’t advocate such a thing and upon your own head be it.

 

The point is if you buy a tricked player or pay to have the work done you have little or no comeback if the job is bodged or, as often happens, some discs won’t play, or it makes the player behave in strange ways. On the other hand, if the region lock can be changed or disabled in the player’s operating system or ‘firmware’, by entering a code into the player’s remote handset, pressing a combination of buttons on the front panel, or even by muttering secret incantations over it, then the facility is quite obviously built into the machine. In doing so you’re not breaking any laws, risking the player’s good health or warranty so the hack is fair game.

 

It has been suggested that such codes are meant for service engineers or are a way for manufacturers to reduce costs by building players that can be easily modded for different overseas markets. Some might even say it’s something users shouldn’t tinker with but we would disagree, it’s a matter of personal choice. We need look no further for moral guidance than that bastion of consumer electronics respectability Philips, which was one of the first DVD manufacturers to fit, and make no secret of a changeable region lock on its players. It reasoned, quite rightly in our opinion that owners of its DVD players may move to a different part of the world – another DVD region – so it would be convenient for them to be able to change the lock so they can continue to use their player in the new location. Admittedly on some Philips players (and various clones sold under the Grundig brand) it was apparently only possible to change the region code 30 or so times – for serial house movers – but precedents had been set and cans of worms opened.

 

Within the past couple of years we have seen a trickle of players with easily hackable region locks turn into a veritable flood, and that’s not counting all of the players with their region locks disabled at the factory, or by the importer. The codes and procedures needed to unlock these machines do not get into the public domain by accident nor do determined ‘hackers’ stumble across them. They tend to appear mysteriously on Internet sites at or around the time of a player’s launch, or increasingly a manufacturer or distributor will simply tell anyone who asks how to do it. Needless to say we always ask when we review a player and make no secret of the fact that the information may be published. We haven’t actually seen any unlock codes printed in an instruction book, yet, but it can only be a matter of time…

 

It has to be said that most players with easily hackable region locks come from so-called ‘B-Brands’ and the many less well-known makes coming onto the market, though in the past few months we have seen several players from prestigious hi-fi brands with ‘loose’ locks. Moreover almost all of the most easily disabled (and unlocked) machines are made in China, though that’s not a reliable indicators to a players hackability as many top brands now source budget and mid-range models from the People’s Republic. Only a small handful of A-Brand manufacturers have region locks that can be changed in firmware; the remainder are the machines that have to be physically modified. In some cases this involves nothing more complicated than snipping a wire, or soldering a couple of pins together, nevertheless, once the screws come out and the lid’s off the guarantee is out of the window; you have been warned!

 

So what happens now? It seems highly unlikely that this particular genie can ever be stuffed back into its bottle and the supply of open region and unlockable players is not going to dry up but the chances of Regional Coding being abandoned by the powers that be behind DVD seems remote. We suspect they hope that it will eventually go away, and they may be right. The range and variety of Region 2 discs improves daily and the gap between the US and UK software releases is getting narrower, many newcomers to DVD are perfectly content with what’s available now and a lot of people are unaware that Regional Coding even exists. Within another five years it could all become irrelevant; streaming technologies make it increasingly likely movies will be delivered direct to our homes – potentially from anywhere in the world via the Internet or satellite link -- to be watched straight away or downloaded to disc. When that happens we’ll look back at Regional Coding as a mildly diverting episode in the birth pangs of just another home entertainment technology. Ho-hum, it was fun while it lasted...

 

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Ó R. Maybury 2000, 2206

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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