Regional codes for DVDs

Motion picture studios want to control the home release of movies in different countries because cinema releases aren’t simultaneous (a movie may come out on video in the U.S. when it’s just hitting screens in Europe). Also, studios sell distribution rights to different foreign distributors and would like to guarantee an exclusive market.

Therefore, the studios required that the DVD standard include codes that can be used to prevent playback of certain discs in certain geographical regions. Each player is given a code for the region in which it’s sold. The player will refuse to play discs that are not allowed in that region. This means that discs bought in one country may not play on players bought in another country.

Regional codes are entirely optional for the maker of a disc. Discs without codes will play on any player in any country. It’s not an encryption system, it’s just one byte of information on the disc, which recognises eight different DVD worldwide regions, that the player checks:

Region Coverage
Region 1 USA, Canada, U.S. Territories
Region 2 Japan, Europe, South Africa, and Middle East (including Egypt)
Region 3 Southeast Asia and East Asia (including Hong Kong)
Region 4 Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands, Central America, Mexico, South America and the Caribbean
Region 5 Eastern Europe (former Soviet Union), Indian subcontinent, Africa, North Korea and Mongolia
Region 6 China
Region 7 Reserved
Region 8 Special international venues (airplanes, cruise ships, etc.)

Region-2 coding standards proved more complicated to finalise than was originally expected, due to huge variations in censorship laws and the number of different languages spoken across the region, and was one of the main reasons for DVD taking so long to become established. It’s impossible to include films coded for every country in Region-2 on a single disc. This led the DVD Forum (DVDF) to split the region into several sub-regions, and this, in turn, caused delays in the availability of Region-2 discs. By the autumn of 1998 barely a dozen Region-2 discs had been released, compared to the hundreds of titles available in the US. This situation led to many companies selling DVD players that had been reconfigured to play discs from any region.

Regional playback control (RPC) in computer drive-based DVD playback systems was implemented in two phases:

  • In Phase I the RPC functions were allowed to be implemented in the playback system – at the operating system level – so long as the RPC functionality was closely coupled with the CSS authentication and decryption functionality. During Phase I, only one region was allowed to be set for any given computer DVD playback system.
  • Phase II – which applies to all new implementations from 1 January 2000 – allows the region of the computer-based DVD playback system to be reset by the consumer but requires that the manufacturer of the DVD drive implement the RPC functions in firmware in the drive itself. In general, this means that the consumer may reset the region of their DVD drive five times (and may have this five times resetting capability re-established by an authorised service centre an additional four times after purchase).

With hindsight, the wisdom of attempting to enforce regional segregation is questionable. The games console manufacturers (Nintendo, Sega and Sony) have been trying to stop owners from playing games imported from other countries for several years now. Generally, whenever such regional standards were implemented, it only took someone a few weeks to work out a way around it, whether it be a cartridge adapter or a modification to the machine itself. In real terms, all regional DVD coding has cost the DVD Forum a lot of money, delayed market up-take and allowed third-party companies to make a great deal of money bypassing it.

Ultimately, there is no doubt that DVD will prevail as there’s simply far too much heavyweight support behind it. In the US, even the die-hard LaserDisc collectors have been forced to adopt DVD as the movie studios cut down their LaserDisc production and ramped up their DVD output. With the increasing availability of DVD-ROM drives in notebook PCs and the availability of software-based MPEG-2 decoders capable of delivering significantly better results than older hardware-based solutions, DVD was ubiquitous by the start of the new millennium.

By early 2002 regional coding of DVDs remained a source of huge controversy, with Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) stepping into a Federal Court case to challenge the international agreement on RPC. The ACCC argued that the practical effect of RPC was that a consumer who purchased a DVD player in Australia was prevented from playing films obtained overseas and that since overseas markets give Australian consumers access to a wider range of competitively priced film titles with special features not available locally, the practice amounted to the creation and maintenance of artificial barriers to trade that were not warranted by the law.