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dot life Monday, 19 August, 2002, 13:55 GMT 14:55 UK
Border controls crumble in DVD land
Remote control
DVDs can be cheated with a normal remote control
Hollywood fixed the DVD market so films could only be played in the region they were purchased. But viewers got round it with "cheat codes" and now the system is on the verge of collapse.
American film studios are rapidly learning what computer software makers found out long ago: people will always find a way to get around almost any systems put in place to restrict the copying or distributing of digital products

Digital Versatile Discs (DVDs) can store digital copies of films, and a great deal of time and money has been spent trying to devise a way to ensure their use can be controlled. A key part of this is the Region Coding system, which is designed to stop European film buffs buying DVDs in America.

Video gamer
Cheat codes came to light in video games
This is now on the point of being abandoned because so many DVD manufacturers have deliberately undermined the system.

The attraction of buying DVDs on the other side of the Atlantic is clear: not only are they usually considerably cheaper, but more importantly films are available on DVD in America up to a year before they appear on disc in Europe, and often before they have even been released in the cinema here.

The Region Coding system works by dividing the world into six regions, with the United States in Region One and the UK in Region Two. DVD players sold in any region can only play DVDs from the same region, so a film bought on DVD in the USA (Region One) won't play on a DVD player bought in the UK (Region Two).
The world in DVD regions
  • Region One: US, Canada
  • Region Two: Europe, Japan, South Africa, Middle East
  • Region Three: Southeast Asia, East Asia
  • Region Four: Australia, New Zealand, Central and South America
  • Region Five: Eastern Europe, Indian subcontinent, Africa
  • Region Six: China

  • That's the theory anyway. But many DVD player manufacturers have borrowed the concept of "cheat codes" from the video games industry to enable retailers or buyers to alter their machines to play DVDs from any region, rendering Region Coding completely ineffective.

    DVD manufacturers' cheat codes are made up of combinations of button presses on the machine's remote control. When entered correctly, users are presented with a "secret" menu inviting them to reset the DVD player to "multi-region" - to play discs from all regions.

    How are these cheat codes distributed? Although the manufacturers don't print them in their instruction manuals, they are made available directly or indirectly to retailers who often include the cheat codes on a photocopied slip of paper in the packaging, or publish them on the Internet.

    Endre Lock, UK sales manager of CyberHome, a German company selling DVD players which can easily be turned into multi-region players, says the firm does not officially acknowledge its players are multi-region for legal reasons.
    Homer Simpson
    Homer Simpson: A controversial advocate of DVD hacking

    "We don't ship them as multi-region any more because we got into trouble. When you buy one of our DVD players now it is set to the right region for the country it is sold in," he says.

    "If you find codes to make it multi-regional then good luck to you - it's not our responsibility. You can find codes for more or less all brands of DVD player including ours."

    When asked where codes for CyberHome products can be found he cited a website where they are available.

    CyberHome is by no means unusual - the evidence is that the sale of multi-region-capable DVD players in the UK is extremely widespread, according to Graham Sharpless, a member of the UK DVD Committee, a trade association for the video publishing industry within the UK.

    "In practice, most if not all DVD players sold in the UK can be made to play discs from other regions and many, perhaps most, do," he says. "This does not mean that manufacturers are shipping players that are multi-region, but that they can be modified by retailers, or can be made multi-region by the user."
    Lord of the Rings
    Lord of the Rings has been UK's fastest selling DVD

    Although Region Coding was a key plank in the film companies' strategy to maintain control of their products when released on DVD, industry sources suggest they are already admitting defeat, and a new system is emerging called Regional Code Enhancement.

    This system adds another layer of security to select Region One discs - preventing them from being played on region-free DVD players.

    But a more likely scenario is that Region Coding will be abandoned altogether, Mr Sharpless hinted.

    "The whole issue of region coding is now somewhat irrelevant as the release windows in USA and Europe are getting closer," he says. If this happens then DVD owners will finally be able to buy films whenever and wherever they choose.


    Some of your comments so far:

    Ironic, isn't it. These companies are always so keen to promote 'globalisation' yet at the same time lead the race for wringing profit from the weary consumer worldwide.
    Gus, Paris, France

    There is yet another point to be made: money. You can't sell DVDs at the same price point in Europe and, say, India. The Indian market simply can't afford it in meaningful quantities. So DVDs in poor country are sold cheaper, with a lesser profit margin. But the system crashes if people from rich country decide the Indian version is good enough for them.
    F Hugot, France

    I like my Region One discs for another reason - they do not suffer the 4% speedup associated with movies converted to PAL video.
    Steve, Australia

    Another point that has not been mentioned is that movie buffs often buy Region One discs because they do not suffer from the censorship so prevalent in the UK releases. A recent example is Episode II - Attack of the Clones -- The BBFC has cut a headbutt from the UK version, so many people will prefer to buy the uncut US version.
    Matthew Harffy, England

    I have the opposite problem. I want to play region 2 DVDs in the USA. I am sure England games will never be available as region 1, so why even put a region on these DVDs?
    John, USA

    Here in Australia, it is illegal to sell Region locked DVD players, as it breaks the Fair Trading practicies Act of 1984, though some manufactures are yet to comply.
    Jansen brown, Australia

    While many hardware DVD players have codes, this is sadly not true of PC DVD-ROMs and software DVD players. RPC-2 DVD-ROMs do the region checking in the DVD hardware and require a firmware hack to "fix". If possible at all, such changes risk damaging or destroying the drive.
    Craig Ringer, Australia

    Your article does not mention that many DVD players are sold as multi-region, labelled as "universal". There are 99 players out there such as Alba that play discs from any region without any codes at all.
    Nathan, UK

    RCE stops any DVD player that is set to play all regions from playing a DVD from a specific region. There is an easy way round this, instead of turning you DVD into multi region (Region Zero) you simply set it to be specifically Region One.
    William Adams, UK

    When the European Union Copyright Directive (EUCD) is incorportated into UK law in the next few months, many of the DVD hacking activities described in the article will become criminal offences. You might be OK keying the codes into your own DVD player, but tell other folks how to do it and you could be in big trouble.
    Richard Simpson, UK

    The really annoying thing for me is that region 2 discs sold here in Germany are cheaper than in UK but often have permanent German language subtitles on the English soundtrack. Hollywood will have its revenge!
    Al, Germany (ex-UK)

    I see nothing wrong with DVD hacking. Indeed, my cheap DVD player has a secret menu that even disables the "Macrovision" copy protection - allowing me to pipe my DVD source around the house and/or onto tape without the copy protection scrambling the signal!
    Steve England, UK

    Unlike the mp3 issue, where people are effectively stealing copyrighted material, a person buying a region 1 DVD in the UK is still paying the company that produced it. Therefore, region coding is simply a transparently obvious attempt to ensure that consumers outside the USA are forced to pay higher prices.
    Steve, UK

    Your portrayal of multi-region DVD players is a little innacurrate. The facility to change the region is simply put into the players at the factory stage in order for the manufacturer to have a single manufacturing process for players sold in all six DVD regions. The remote 'hacking' is simply a way for the engineers to regionalise the players prior to selling.
    Keith Farmer, England

    Any thoughts on DVD hacking?

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    Weely guide to getting buttoned up

    See also:

    30 Jul 02 | Entertainment
    12 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
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