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Volume 72, Issue 68, Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Life & Arts

Region coding no longer a barrier


Austin Havican

Pretend you were vacationing in Europe and picked up a few DVDs from street vendors or video retailers. Somehow, they had your favorite movie that isn't available in the U.S. After you get home and get past the jetlag, you pop one of the movies into your computer or DVD player -- and it doesn't work.

The blame falls on a region coding system endorsed by almost all DVD distributors around the world. Region coding basically restricts the use of a DVD to a certain geographical location, denoted by a single-digit number on the back of the packaging, from zero to six.

Region 1 represents the United States and Canada. To the south, Mexico, the other countries in Central America, almost the entire South American continent, Australia and New Zealand are Region 4. Region 2 is Europe, the Middle East, South Africa, Greenland, Japan, Lesotho and Swaziland. 

Region 3 is Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea and Taiwan, and Region 5 covers most of Africa, Russia, the Indian subcontinent, Mongolia and North Korea. Region 6 DVDs can be used only in China.

There is a Region 7 coding, but it is currently unused. And, for whatever reason, international planes and cruise ships use a special Region 8.

So, why all of the fuss? 

Most motion picture studios explain that it somehow benefits the customer's product safety and guarantees compatibility with DVD players or computers purchased in different regions.

The truth of the matter concerns the distributor's rights to control release dates, pricing, and what's on each version of the DVD. For example, if a DVD bound for Mexico has a special feature European audiences don't care for, distributors can put out two separate copies, playable only in DVD players with the proper region coding.

Recently, more and more titles in Region 0 -- meaning the discs are playable in all regions -- have been showing up, and hardware manufacturers are even making DVD players with multi-region capabilities. The players identify the region coding on a disc and allow the viewer to choose which region the player should adapt to. Some other DVD players simply bypass the coding all together.

If you travel with a laptop, and want to watch the anti-Bush documentary you picked up in France, you might have a little bit of trouble.

Most computer DVD-rom drives allow users five chances to select their final region coding. Dean Marks from AOL Time Warner explained: "And, the way it works, and I apologize because it's a little bit complicated, the consumer can set it five times." After those five chances are used up, consumers have the ability to reset the count up to four more times. 

"After the fifth time that they've reset it, they do have an ability to reset it again, but they have to bring the drive to an authorized dealer or an authorized service representative who can then authorize an additional set of five changes, and then they can bring it back for a second, for a third, fourth and fifth set of authorized changes," Marks said. "So you can change it 25 times in total, but you have to go back for each set of five."

For permanent solutions, the VideoLan company has created a free VLC Player. The program bypasses region coding and has a built-in DVD player. Almost 29 million users have downloaded the player from the company's Web site,, and the open-source program is supported on 15 different operating systems.

For those of us who don't like watching movies on computer screens, a German Web site,, has instructions for unlocking most home-theater DVD players, but it should be noted that most of the techniques listed void the product's warranty.

The next generations of HD-DVD and Blu-Ray formats only have three different region codes, although Europe is still separated from America and Japan. 

Still, our DVD manufacturers have not become democratic enough in their restrictions to embrace a region-free market and global economy. 

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