US DVD importers ruled illegal

Region 1 DVDs are better quality and include more extras, important for enticing buyers. But their supply may soon dry up for UK consumers

Legal wranglings over the increasingly prevalent DVD format have left UK consumers with little chance of obtaining the most popular type -- Region 1 -- other than importing them direct from the US.

A prosecution brought by the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) ruled that the importing of Region 1 DVDs through a third party distributor is illegal and effectively blocks British consumers from the thousands of titles that are still unavailable here.

Essex based Laser Enterprises was first raided by FACT in September 1998 for selling US DVDs and charged with copyright infringement. The company was supplying Region 1 DVDs through a personal importation service. FACT changed its case to charge the company under the Video Recording Act, which saw it pleading guilty last week.

"This was a successful prosecution," said Reg Dixon, director general of FACT, "The Video Recording Act says that to distribute copy from the US that has not been certified for the UK is illegal. It has got to be for personal use at all times."

The company denies that it was guilty of infringing copyright or the Video Recording Act, according to Barry Eirera, managing director of Laser Enterprises. However George Gardner, partner with London law firm Tarlow & Lyons, states that "companies selling product not certified for the UK would fall foul of the law."

Eirera, who had over £130,000 of stock destroyed as a result of the verdict, questions not just the validity of FACT's case but also its benefit to the industry as a whole. He points out that along with numerous stores in the UK selling Region 1 product, Tower Records currently sells imported Laser Discs and Australian DVDs. According to Eirera, FACT confided that they were unlikely to pursue further such cases due to a lack of funding.

Dixon denies that FACT will not be pursuing other retailers supplying imported DVDs, claiming that there are "several prosecutions" in the pipeline.

There is high demand for Region 1 discs in the UK as the back catalogue of available titles dwarfs that available in the UK. The size of the market in the US also means that the studios are prepared to put more effort into producing higher-quality DVDs for that market, with a wider and more innovative range of the extras features that make the format so popular.

But the question might be moot before long. As the DVD market grows out from its initial base of early adopters and into the mass market, the demand for Region 1 titles is likely to diminish dramatically, according to Doug Hopper, market research consultant for industry body the British Video Association (BVA).

"The early adopters, the sort of people who would have chipped their players [making them capable of playing Region 1 discs], were the initial driving force in the market, but this group will become less and less significant," he says. "The sort of person who is buying DVDs from Woolworths is not going to bother buying a Region 1 title over the Web."

Any crackdown against personal DVD importation services is unlikely to harm UK consumers. As Hopper points out, those who do wish to import Region 1s will find it much cheaper to buy them direct from the US. Hopper also believes that there is no longer any real difference between the quality of DVD titles. "In fact, in some cases Region 2 titles are of higher quality," he said.

Bryan Welsh, managing director of DVDplus, agrees that it is only the "hardcore" DVD fanatics who will go to the trouble of importing Region 1 titles. "The latest research I've seen is that the proportion of Region 1 title in Europe will peak this quarter and decline thereafter."

However, a source from one of the major studios believes that the quality of UK DVD releases, especially in terms of the amount of included extras, is still far behind the US. "I doubt if 10 percent, if that, of UK DVDs offer the same quality as in the US," he says, "They [the studios] say that this is down to the space taken up on the disc by adding several European languages but I'm not sure how true this is."

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