The HMS DVD's faulty guidance

What on earth's up with the global segregation of DVD content?

Having criticized Sony about some of its audio strategies two weeks ago and berated TiVO and Replay last week, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that ZDNet readers really care about their television. The amount of feedback I've received has been remarkable.

The three companies I've opined about thus far aren't the only miscreants in my consumer-electronics worldview. Sony does, however, make an awfully good target, since it embodies the ongoing conflict between consumer-electronics product developer and content owner, all within a single company.

This kind of conflict can create its own set of unexpected -- and unwelcome -- results. Case in point: The whole DVD-regioning disaster.

For those tuning in late to the whole concept of DVDs, the movie studios colluded with the DVD player manufacturers in yet another archetypal industry-friendly/consumer-hostile move to force a system of six geographic regions upon the DVD-buying, -renting, and -watching populace. The idea is that DVDs for one region cannot be played in others.

As you might imagine, this scheme sucks for a lot of people.

While it provides a negligible hurdle to those determined to thwart the system, it makes life unnecessarily difficult for legit consumers to watch the video they want to.

After the various rancorous protests the world over, "globalism" is acquiring more than a whiff of the pejorative, as terms go. While I agree that worldwide cultural homogeneity is a Really Bad Idea, it seems that the globalists are only thinking globally in a very selective manner.

If many of the putative globalists really were thinking of the world as a single market, they'd realize that people want to buy media regardless of where they are on the globe.

If these media companies been paying attention to the amount of culture-specific media that travels outside its geographic origin over the Internet, they'd realize that there is much profit to be made. When The Electronic Telegraph first launched, a disproportionately large amount of its traffic came from overseas. Between the many expatriates worldwide and the various diasporas that have spread across the globe, there're a lot of potential media purchasers located outside of their obvious geographical areas.

But the many paranoiacs (and I mean this in the most pathological sense of the word) who own rights to films and television media apparently spend more time and money worrying about how someone might hypothetically be ripping them off and not enough time and money working on ways to let people who want to buy their media actually purchase it.

I'm a good example of this group. You see, while I reside in the United States, I don't want to consume exclusively U.S. video. Loads of really good film and television is produced elsewhere in the world, and there's quite a lot of it I want to watch. Heck, even Slashdot has an Anime category these days and runs pieces venting spleen about DVD titles about to be released in the United States without the original Japanese voice track.

Thanks to the wonders of e-commerce and the World Wide Web, I can, however, purchase La Haine on DVD from France and have it shipped to me. I intend to buy The Thunderbirds box set as well, which is unlikely to ever be released in the United States. However, France and the UK are both in DVD Region 2, and therefore these DVDs won't play on a stock U.S. DVD player.

So despite the fact that I have legally purchased media on DVD, the cartel of film rights owners and DVD equipment manufacturers would like to prevent me from viewing it. To this end, they are continually increasing the perniciousness of DVD titles' region protection. (After all, a DVD's menu system is just software that resides on the disc itself. The studios and mastering houses are continually working on increasingly interesting things to do with the menuing interfaces, including, unfortunately, amped-up region protection.)

The only solution is to get a player with a malleable region coding, something that none of the consumer-electronics firms will sell outright but that numerous entrepreneurs worldwide offer in the form of warranty-voided modified stock units. In the early days of DVD, setting a player's region code to zero allowed most DVDs to play fine. These days, DVDs often check explicitly for the right version, and if a Region 1 disc isn't in a Region 1 player, it just won't play.

(It's worth noting that even with DVDs, there's still the issue of different television standards, and that if you want to play a Region 2 DVD in the United States, you better have a TV that supports PAL or a DVD player that will perform the necessary conversion to NTSC.)

If you want to know why the electronics companies appear to be playing along with the region limits, recent history has the answer.

When DAT was introduced in the United States, the big music labels became deeply distressed over what they perceived to an opportunity to make high-fidelity copies. (Since DAT's sampling rate was higher than that of CD, perfect copies became technically possible). MiniDisc was in many ways a direct response to this issue, since MD uses a lossy compression system whose audio quality is inferior to CD.

The reason DAT was killed in the United States is that Congress enacted legislation against it. Yes, the elected representatives of the time were lobbied so heavily that they mandated copy protection hardware for DAT recorders, thereby making them too expensive to buy. (Nota bene: they're at it again.) Not only did the invertebrate lawmakers do the wrong thing for consumers, they sent the message to the electronics manufacturers that the U.S. media lobby had the power to wage legislative war against them.

So while the U.S. government's Federal Communications Commission -- not my favorite organization at the moment -- actively allowed (nay, encouraged!) the U.S. domestic digital cellular telephony situation's dissolution into consumer-hostile chaos in the name of "letting the market decide," Congress is just as happy to enact laws against the interests of consumers.

Those of you who see parallels between region enforcement, the MPAA's attack on DeCSS, or the RIAA's offensive against MP3, are not mistaken. As technology progresses and the potential for cool new media gadgetry increases, it seems that real innovation is being stifled with great vigor by those -- industrial and legislative alike -- too short-sighted to embrace it.

Instead, they to seem want everything to remain the way it is, rather than coming up with potentially even more lucrative ways of selling their media. But instead of looking at ways to make Napster work, like Bertelsmann is apparently doing, the RIAA would rather see it dead.

The entertainment industry has an phenomenally poor technology track record. It keeps trying to do the least amount of work possible and then proceeds to act indignant when it makes yet another poor technology choice. In the case of the profoundly flawed encryption scheme used in DVDs, this industry -- in the form of the MPAA -- then prefers to use its considerable war chest to litigate against a Norwegian teenager rather than spending its money trying to develop a system that suits its needs as well as consumers'.

If you care about your rights to consume legally purchased/licensed media your way, my recommendation is simple: Donate money to the EFF, even if you're not in the United States. The EFF is actively working on multiple fronts to curb the legal excesses of the motion-picture and recording industries.

The way things are looking now, we're stuck with DVD regions, but things are likely to get a lot worse unless we consumers take notice and do something about it.

Stephan Somogyi owns Topsy Turvy on DVD, and hopes most fervently that Delicatessen and Loriot's collected works -- among many others -- will finally be released on DVD soon.


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