A number of years ago, I was visiting some friends in Switzerland who had the most extensive library I’d ever seen outside a video store—nearly 400 discs. When they asked if I wanted to watch The Fifth Element, I said yes and didn’t give it a second thought. But in fact, I was about to witness something that motion picture studios want you to believe is impossible. With a few quick menu selections from their remote control, they played a North American DVD release on a player they purchased in Switzerland. This was supposed to be impossible because DVDs are designed to play only in the region in which they were distributed. But it worked because my friends had a specially modified, “code-free” DVD player.
Almost every commercially available DVD is manufactured with a region code designating a particular geographic market. These codes correspond to settings in DVD players, and vary according to where they are sold. Manufacturers of DVD players are required to use region settings in order to license the copy protection technology that nearly all DVDs use. You can play any region 1 DVD in any region 1 player, but you can’t play, say, a region 6 DVD in a region 1 player or a region 1 DVD in a region 2 player. The main reason for this scheme is that motion pictures are released at different times in different parts of the world. If a film hasn’t been released in a certain area yet, the last thing a studio wants is for everyone to go rent it on DVD, because that would severely reduce the profits from the theatrical release.
This system sounds reasonable, but it has some flaws. For one thing, the studios apply it to all DVDs—even to films that haven’t been in theaters for decades, or are never planned for theatrical release in a given region. It also prevents consumers in one part of the world from playing DVDs that, for one reason or another, aren’t distributed everywhere. For example, the 1974 film The Golden Lotus, in which Jackie Chan had a minor role, was made in Hong Kong, and the studio released the DVD version only with region 3 encoding. But if I, as an American Jackie Chan fan, want to see the film on DVD, I’m out of luck; North America uses Region 1 encoding.
There are other reasons someone might want to view a DVD designed for another region. Stanley Kubrick fans were outraged that the U.S. release of Eyes Wide Shut had one particularly graphic scene digitally edited, whereas the DVD available in other regions had the original scene as the director intended. Likewise, American Twin Peaks aficionados who would like to get the whole series on DVD can only do so by purchasing the European release, which then won’t work on their U.S. players. Situations such as these typically arise because of contractual issues related to distribution rights in various countries. But these tangles end up hurting both consumers and the studios. No matter how badly I would like to pay a studio money for one of these DVDs, they won’t let me—and I can’t see the show.
Many standard DVD players contain secret codes that you can enter using your remote control to change the region setting or disable region sensing altogether. DVD hackers spend hours snooping for these magic sequences and then post them on Web sites where anyone can search for instructions that work with their DVD player. But not all players have these back doors, and even those that do sometimes make them overly complicated.
The Code Breakers
Starting shortly after the first DVDs were released, enterprising small companies found ways around these difficulties. By tinkering with the electronics of a DVD player—usually adding or replacing a chip—they can sometimes modify it so that it is no longer region-bound. Modified players are known as “code-free,” “region-free,” or “zone-free,” among other names. You can buy a new machine with the modification already made, and in some cases a company will upgrade your existing machine or sell you a kit to do so yourself. Modifying your DVD player will in many cases void the manufacturer’s warranty, but most companies that sell code-free players offer their own warranties that are just as good. And the cost of code-free players is only slightly higher than that of the unmodified versions.
Before you run out and buy a code-free player, though, be aware of a few things. First, although it’s not illegal to own such a device, it makes studios unhappy, so they are constantly trying to come up with new ways of encoding DVDs so they won’t work on code-free machines. (The modifications, in turn, evolve to outsmart the new techniques, and round it goes.) Second, you may still encounter a DVD that, despite region compatibility, won’t display properly on your TV without a special adapter because of an incompatible video encoding method—though some newer DVD players have built-in converters that enable you to show a PAL DVD on an NTSC TV or vice versa. And finally, locating DVDs designed for another region can be a challenge (think eBay). All that said, code-free DVD players are a clever workaround to an annoying problem, and an important component of any video collector’s system. —Joe Kissell