Ever thought of buying a game or television programme not available in your home country when overseas? Ever learnt a foreign language and thought of buying a show in its original language when travelling in its country of origin? While these may sound attractive, it may get more complicated than it seems as many companies use regional coding, so a DVD bought overseas may not work on your DVD player.
The companies involved call this Digital Rights Management (DRM) and claim they are protecting the rights of copyright holders, "preventing piracy". In fact, though, region codes have no effect on piracy, if that is taken to mean illegal copying; a bit-for-bit copy of a disk will play just fine on any device where the original will.
Critics of DRM call it Digital Restrictions Management and claim that it protects no legitimate rights, only a cartel's aspirations for market control. For example, a French-language video game usually sells for a higher price in France than in Canada. Similarly, a movie may not be released on DVD in Australia for months after it becomes available in the US, and even then it will often be more expensive in Australia. Region codes are used to force customers to buy the higher-priced French game or Australian DVD, rather than importing cheaper versions. If the codes function as designed, then their devices will refuse to play an imported disk.
Media companies institute regional coding schemes for several reasons. A company can choose to use regional coding to release a work in certain markets first; for example, a movie could be released on DVD in the United States before it is exported to Europe. Works can also be localized differently in different regions; a German-language dub may be seen in Europe but have little to no use in Australia. Companies can also enforce price discrimination to protect local importers of foreign works, or modify them to remove certain content (such as a video game removing the Nazi swastika where such symbols are restricted).
Video games typically have one of four regional codes. The list below shows the areas covered by each code:
- NTSC-U/C – The Americas
- NTSC-J – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Southeast Asia
- NTSC-C – mainland China
- PAL – Europe, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa
Simplifying a bit, NTSC is the North American television standard and PAL the European one. Note that, even without region coding, an NTSC signal generally cannot be displayed on a PAL device or vice versa. There are dual-standard TVs, but they tend to be hard to find and expensive. A good place to look for one may be among immigrant communities; for example in Canada, Indian shops often have dual-standard devices because some of their customers want to watch imported Hindi movies which come in PAL format.
DVDs were originally divided into 8 different regions, labelled 1-8, with only 1-6 actually used. In addition, there are region code "0" DVDs which would work in regions 1-6 and region "ALL" DVDs which work in all regions. The system has changed over time; the current list is:
- 0 – No region coding
- 1 – USA and Canada
- 2 – Europe, including Turkey, plus Egypt, Arabia, Japan and South Africa
- 3 – Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia
- 4 – Australia and New Zealand, Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America
- 5 – India, Africa, Russia and some former USSR countries
- 6 – People's Republic of China
- 7 – Antarctica
- 8 – Space
- 9 – Expansion (often used as region free)
The former USSR is divided between regions 2 and 5. The Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and the Caucasus states (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) are region 2; the rest of the post-Soviet states are in region 5. DVDs sold in the Baltics are coded as both 2 and 5.
There is also a newer system called Region Code Enhancement (RCE), an attempt by the studios to defeat region-free DVD players. A region-free player may work with any region code, but not with an RCE "enhanced" disk.
Blu-ray discs have only three different region codes.
- A – North America, Central America, South America, East Asia (except mainland China), Southeast Asia; U.S. territories; Bermuda
- B – Africa, Europe, Oceania; Middle East; Netherlands; British overseas territories, French territories; Greenland
- C – Central Asia, South Asia; Mongolia, Russia, China (mainland only)
Disks can also be tagged as playable in any region, but this is not common.
Circumventing regional coding
Region-free DVD players are routinely sold; web search will turn up dozens of vendors. Also, some shops can modify a DVD player or gaming console so that it supports all region codes and, at least for certain models, instructions for doing such modifications yourself are readily available on the web.
On computers, DVD (and perhaps other) region coding systems are easily defeated. The best-known system for region-free play on Windows is called DeCSS, and another is "DVD Decrypter"; either can save a clean MPEG2 file from a video DVD. Nearly any Linux or BSD system includes software for region-free play (as free software won't get any of the region keys, they have no reason to respect the regions).
There are difficulties. For one thing, modifying your device may void your warranty. For another, the legality of defeating these codes varies from country to country.
Most notably, such modifications may be illegal in the United States; the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) specifically bans any "circumvention device" designed to defeat "technological protection measures". In particular, there were a number of DMCA actions against DeCSS, and using the program or an equivalent one is arguably illegal in the US. Harvard Law School has a FAQ document covering both legal and technical issues around DeCSS.
Similarly, in EU circumventing "effective" protection measures, and especially providing circumvention devices, is illegal. One can argue that the measures are not effective (even by the definition in the law), but to stay safe you might want to check, at least if downloading, developing or travelling with non-standard software.
However, in other places like Hong Kong and Australia, such practices are encouraged, as their governments claim that regional lockout is contrary to free trade practices. In fact, Australian and New Zealand laws require all DVD players sold to either be region free or to come with instructions on how to disable regional lockout.
In other places, such as China, there is no law against region coding but nearly all players sold are region-free. In many Western cities, the local Chinatown merchants offer cheap region-free players.
For the rest of the world, check your own local laws.