DVD Playas

Are There Ways Around a Disc's 'Regional Coding'?

Q: On a recent trip to London, I plunked down several quid on the latest Ali G DVD. Imagine my horror when I popped it into my DVD player back home, and was informed that the disc was unplayable because of a "regional code" problem. As beer-addled Everyman Cliff Clavin once asked, "What's up with that?"

Depending on your point of view, region codes are Hollywood's way of either (a) foiling digital pirates, or (b) flipping the bird to foreign-film buffs. Embedded on most discs, the codes prevent DVDs purchased on one continent from being played in another. There are still ways around this, but Big Media's getting ever hipper to the tricks.

The regional coding system currently breaks down the globe into six regions. The U.S. and Canada are region one, while Great Britain is in region two. Look at the back cover of your cherished Ali G DVD—is there a picture of a little globe with a "2" on it? That's the telltale sign that your disc will only work with players manufactured for the European market. Odds are your DVD hardware was purchased in the States, and is thus programmed to only accept discs labeled with a "1."

illustration: Lloyd Miller

Movie studios say that region coding's a necessary evil, to prevent folks in, say, Mongolia (region five) from watching—and perhaps pirating—the first season of King of the Hill before the set's Asian release. As you found out the hard way, however, the practice tends to rile DVD-heads whose tastes run toward anime, kung fu, or Bolivian melodrama. Foreign discs ordered online, or picked up during trips abroad, often wind up being non-simpatico with American players.

The simplest way to prevent cinematic disappointment is to make sure your potential purchase won't have a coding problem. If you're in a foreign DVD shop, check the back of the package to make sure the globe icon's emblazoned with a "0," which means it'll play on any machine. And if you're purchasing from an online vendor, make sure to inquire about the region code; the Open Directory Project (dmoz.org) has a handy list of Web outlets that carry code-free DVDs, with an emphasis on Hong Kong action flicks.

Mr. Roboto's cineaste pals also recommend looking into region-free DVD players. Superstores like Best Buy don't carry 'em, so you'll have to peruse a site like zonefreedvd.com, or ask at your local video specialty store. Trouble is, the studios are aware that these players are out there, and they're beginning to add yet another layer of protection to their discs, called region coding enhancement (RCE). Some recent mega-releases, like Spider-Man and Men in Black II, can detect whether you have a region-free player, and they won't play on such non-discriminatory machines. This despite the fact that buying a region-free player's perfectly legal.

Don't think that you can escape the region-coding menace by using your computer's DVD-ROM drive, smarty. Most such drives allow you to adjust the hardware's region code just a limited amount of times. So after the fourth or fifth reset, your drive's forever stuck on that code. Fortunately, the good folks at digital-digest.com have published a useful guide to working around this blocking mechanism.

Also on the side of the anti-coding angels is dvdtalk.com, which has a great FAQ that includes some tricks on foiling RCE, at least if you own a region-free player. If you've really got your panties in a twist, you can also try ripping the DVD to your hard drive with DVD Decrypter (dvddecrypter.com), which discards the region coding as part of the copying process; then burn a copy that your player won't spit out like so much root beer schnapps.

This may all seem pretty laborious, considering you merely want to yuk it up to a DVD you purchased legally. But your efforts will be duly rewarded; Ali G's fake rendition of the Kazakh national anthem is an instant classic.


Mr. Roboto's said it once, and he'll say it again: Never, ever open an e-mail attachment that you're not expecting. The Sobig.f virus spread so rapidly because untold thousands of users felt compelled to check out that supposed "wicked screensaver." And while you're at it, update your e-mail client; the latest version of Outlook was primed to fend off the virus. After nearly losing an index finger while deleting upwards of 3,000 virus-laden messages, Mr. Roboto commands you.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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