Thwarted By Region Codes

Recently, my sister succumbed to the glorious world of British television and cinema thanks to the gateway drug known as Tom Hiddleston. You may have seen him recently in a small art house venture called The Avengers. My sister spends most of her free time staring at his pictures, reading his interviews, and hunting down every movie and TV show he’s ever been in–even if he appears only for 30 seconds. Being a Hiddleston fan myself, I don’t mind helping her watch everything, but in doing so we quickly encountered a problem. It’s something I’ve known about for years but my sister is only now discovering. When you want to watch a British actor’s complete work, you usually end up hunting for stuff that was only ever released in Britain. And that means you have to deal with the dreaded Region 2 Conundrum.

Here is an excerpt from one of our recent conversations:

Tom Hiddleston in Suburban Shootout

What do PAL/SECAM and NTSC mean? I'm not trying to send classified information, I just wanted to watch TV.

Sister: Look, here’s Archipelago, that indie film he did!
Me: Yeah, but it’s Region 2.
Sister: So?
Me: We don’t have a Region 2 DVD player.
Sister: But–but, he’s in it… and pretty…
Me: Yes, but we can’t watch it–

Yeah, that didn’t go over very well.

DVD region codes split the world into six regions, with the US and Canada as Region 1 and the UK as part of Region 2. Why do these codes exist? Money, basically. With different regions companies can charge different prices in different countries. DVDs are inexpensive to produce, so companies can sell them for very little in countries where the majority of the population can’t afford expensive media purchases, but then they can jack up the price to sell to wealthier countries, like the US. Also, when movie and TV show release dates differ between countries, it prevents people from getting their media earlier by buying from another area where it’s already on the shelves.

Here’s the flaw in their plan: Some DVDs aren’t released in every country, so they will never be available in every regional format. If I were to legally purchase a copy of Archipelago or the second series of Suburban Shootout, I’ll have spent good money on a perfectly legitimate purchase, but without a Region 2 DVD player those discs become just fancy-looking coasters.

The first time I encountered region codes was when I tried to buy the first season of Stargate: Atlantis. It was a North American show but, for some reason, the seasons were released in multiple volumes in Britain before it came out here. I thought about buying it early but then I found out about DVD regions and figured it wasn’t worth it. It would come out in the US eventually, I thought. No big deal, right? And so the Region 2 Conundrum didn’t bother me again until 2007, when I started watching Doctor Who and David Tennant happened.

David Tennant dancing with David Morrissey

The Doctor dances

My former obsession with David Tennant is comparable to my sister’s current fixation on Tom Hiddleston. I read interviews, I stared longingly at pictures, and of course I tried to find everything he ever starred in. One of the things I sought was Blackpool, a pre-Doctor Who series starring Tennant. It’s a musical comedy drama murder mystery, how could I miss it? But it wasn’t available in Region 1 format. As a penniless college student, buying a new DVD player just to play one show didn’t make sense. I’ve heard about how I could switch the region on my laptop’s DVD player but, for some reason, you can only switch back and forth between regions five times. I guess that’s an anti-piracy measure, yet, there are hacks around it and, if someone knows how to crack the DVD code to copy it in the first place, then they’ll know how to get around the five-time restriction. I didn’t want to have to deal with switching between codes on my laptop, risking running out of switches and wasting money on a now unwatchable DVD, and I’m not technologically competent to hack it, so that left me with one option: downloading.

Now, I’ve always been kind of a goody-goody and hadn’t illegally downloaded anything before despite the fact that most people my age do it without blinking (I was raised Catholic, we’re repressed like that), but I needed to see this show. Needed. For reasons. So, I found a torrent that took about a week to fully download and finally got to watch David Tennant lip-syncing to “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”

It was beautiful.

But completely absurd that I had to download it. I was more than willing to buy the DVD and even pay international shipping charges. The DVD was out there, others were able to buy and watch it, why couldn’t I? Why are companies going through such great lengths to prevent piracy when they could just give people the access they want? In the age of the Internet and globalization, having different regions for different countries doesn’t make sense. It actually leads to piracy, instead of preventing it.. For a policy that was put in place so that companies could make as much money as they wanted, that doesn’t add up.

So for now, my sister and I are going to invest in a region free DVD player and she’ll be able to get her Hiddles-fix. And maybe I’ll finally buy Blackpool.

If only I could have done that in the first place.