Why Do We Still Have Region Codes for DVDs?

While vacationing in France, you find a DVD of Ishtar. Score! (It’s never been released on DVD in the US). But when you get home, you discover that you’ve purchased a Region 2 disc, which, in your Region 1 player, is as useful as a coaster. This raises two questions: Why do you want to watch Ishtar? And why do we still have region codes? The answers: taste and money, respectively. Though there’s no accounting for the former, those codes may soon be gone. Regional restrictions began in 1997, as DVD technology was rolling out. 

They have nothing to do with the NTSC and PAL formats that made some foreign videos incompatible with American TVs. Those barriers resulted from different technical standards and are largely irrelevant when it comes to HD media formats. Region codes are digital fences that divide the world into six pieces, erected by the US-based DVD Copy Control Association to protect publishers and distributors. If a film comes out on DVD in Canada in March but won’t hit French theaters until July, the French distributor can be reasonably sure that his box-office take and DVD profits won’t be eroded by a flood of Canadian discs. “The codes were developed at a time when people were largely on dialup,” says film and TV producer David Kittredge. “Nobody really thought to download a full movie in 1997. And there were still a lot of rolling release dates.” But movies premieres are far less staggered now, and regionless DVD players, which used to be prohibitively expensive, can be had for $75. 

Studios went with a simpler three-region approach for Blu-ray, but even that may be largely symbolic. By some estimates, nearly 70 percent of Blu-ray discs carry no code at all. Then why bother? We asked Universal, Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros., and Sony and got a collective “no comment.” Screen Digest analyst Tom Adams says there’s a reason for that defensive posturing, however toothless. “Whether or not the codes are there,” he says, “the idea that they are is probably a good thing from the studios’ point of view.” As downloads replace discs, a consortium of studios, manufacturers, and retailers is backing UltraViolet, a digital-rights system that would let people play a purchased file on up to 12 devices. Region codes may be dying, but they won’t vanish completely until there’s something to take their place.

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