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The DVD Writer | Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD: Regional Differences
Posted Sep 25, 2006 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

Few efforts in the history of DVD have been as controversial or proven as futile as Regional Playback Control (RPC). Justified as necessary protection in a free-for-all world, condemned as yet another shackle of capitalist oppression and circumvented at every turn, RPC is now the latest problem for next generation Blu-ray Disc (BD) and HD DVD.

Regional Playback Control (RPC) is, of course, a technological trick used by commercial movie and television studios to help regulate sales of their products throughout the world. Under the regime established for DVD, all players, drives, and discs contain information that specifies the geographic or administrative areas where they are to be marketed (see chart). To prevent titles designated for one part of the world being distributed elsewhere, embedded information must match or the discs simply won't play. This typically means, for example, that DVD videos sold in the U.S. can't be viewed using equipment purchased in the UK or vice versa.

DVD Video Region Codes (simplified)
Region CodeGeographic Region
1United States, Canada
2Japan, Europe, Middle East, South Africa
3Southeast Asia (including Hong Kong)
4Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Central and South America
5Northwest Asia, North Africa
6China
7Unassigned
8Special purpose (aircraft, cruise ships, hotels)
Source: Bennett, Hugh. Understanding Recordable & Rewritable DVD.

Advocates argue that RPC is a legitimate tool that allows publishers to exercise needed control over global commercial dealings. It enables movies to be released in different locations at various times with market-specific prices, maintains sales channel integrity and exclusive distribution arrangements, and permits language, rating, and content localization and legal compliance.

Detractors counter that RPC unfairly infringes consumer rights and may, in fact, be illegal in some jurisdictions. It runs counter to free trade and supports discriminatory pricing, results in artificially long wait times or even the lack of availability in some parts of the world, thwarts foreign collectors, allows inferior versions to be selectively marketed, and sours global travel and emigration.

Discontent inevitably spawns escape with workarounds thriving to the point of a cottage industry. Traders import DVD players from different countries, entrepreneurs modify off-the-shelf players to adapt to any disc, and manufacturers incorporate backdoors allowing users to deactivate RPC and even DVD burners that employ free software to simply wash it away during copying.

It's against this backdrop that optical storage architects have decided to again embrace RPC and incorporate renovated versions into Blu-ray Disc (BD) and HD DVD. Employing similar curbs to its DVD predecessor, BD Regional Playback Control (BD RPC) portions up the world differently, reducing the number of regions from eight to three (see chart) and helps pacify some past dissenters, especially Japanese and Korean audiences yearning to see movies at the same time as those in North America. It's a good bet, however, that not everyone will be thrilled by this benevolence.

BD-ROM AV Region Codes (simplified)
Region CodeGeographic Region
ANorth America, Central America, South America, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia
BEurope (EU), Africa, Middle East, New Zealand, Austalia
CChina, India, Russia, rest of the world
Source: Bennett, Hugh. The Authoritative Blu-ray Disc (BD) FAQ.

Rival HD DVD is trickier. Although video players and drives have been on the market for many months, the DVD Forum has only just now begun exploring the mechanisms and policies necessary to implement HD DVD RPC. This delay, aided by tightlipped promoters, has led to the conceit that HD DVD is somehow "region-less." But, hopefully, the reality that HD DVD RPC will eventually be on the way won't come as a shock. After all, it's inconceivable for the big studios to require RPC for BD without demanding it of its competitor.

This confusing state of HD DVD affairs raises important questions. Why the delay? Is it somehow a ploy to help HD DVD gain early market advantage? Is there something sinister going on behind the scenes? What happens when HD DVD RPC is finally introduced? Will region-encoded movies be compatible with the installed base of players? Will an exemption be made for units sold before a certain date or hardware exchanges or firmware upgrades be offered? Would an exemption or forced upgrade be fair or, if RPC can be enabled through firmware, is the door left wide open to hacking? And, what about HD DVD's region map? Will it be different from BD's? If so, will that add to the confusion or give one format advantage over the other in certain markets? Has anyone bothered to think this through?

RPC has proven to be unenforceable, unrealistic, unpopular, and futile. In a market dependent on international trade and under ever-increasing assault by freely downloadable content, it seems shortsighted and indeed counterproductive to so encumber the next generation of physical media. Selling BD and HD DVD will be challenging enough without giving consumers more reason to turn their backs.

While RPC may be, technologically, a done deal for BD and HD DVD, it's not too late to change course. Indeed, this would take no more than for the movie and television studios simply to ignore RPC in their high-definition discs (as many already do with the even more controversial Image Constraint Token). Obviously, commitments can change and it's far from an ideal solution. Maybe it's time to consider compromise.

Hugh Bennett (hugh_bennett@compuserve.com), an EMedia and EventDV contributing editor, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems (www.forgetmenot.on.ca), a reseller, systems integrator and industry consultant based in London, Ontario, Canada. Hugh is the author of The Authoritative Blu-ray Disc (BD) FAQ and The Authoritative HD DVD FAQ, available on EMedialive.com, as well as Understanding Recordable & Rewritable DVD and Understanding CD-R & CD-RW, published by the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA).


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