On Copyright, Piracy and Region Codes

There have recently been some news reports that the UK government is considering forcing ISPs to take action against people who download ‘illegal’ files on the internet. By and large and in theory, I would support that up to a point. If I can believe that even a few pence in a DVD sale would actually support the people who sweat their arses of to make these things then that gets my thumbs up. By and large, DVDs are cheap to get online – often so cheap as to make sharing illegal files almost unnecessary. And DVDs are (usually) better quality than a file and come in a nice box!

However, that simple outlook overlooks one small and crucial point – one that the industry, the Government and everyone else concerned has never seems to pay much attention to: The movie industry itself is sick to the core! That’s why it would actually be highly embarrassing to live in the first country to clamp down on this, if they do it thoughtlessly and pay no acknowledgement to that fact. Instead of something that would help people, the move would then simply become another example of ‘the brainless nanny state banning things rather than thinking about them’. I would feel happier if I could believe that there would be some positive changes in the DVD world to match the changes in the file sharing world, especially if the DVD producers would at least acknowledge their part in causing the problem.

I must emphasise that I am not talking here about downloading the latest Bond movie or the latest horror flick from Hollywood. With the price of mainstream DVDs, there is little point to that and I would have no problem whatever with a ban on it. DVD prices online – especially second hand and on the Amazon Marketplace – are very approachable. Sometimes it takes a little time for the prices to drop – but it is worth waiting. I am talking here about things more on the fringes, which is where the DVD industry breaks down and reveals just how sick it actually is. I am talking about the times you desperately want to see some rare film – and no one has bothered to release it on disk. Or you desperately want to see ditto but it is only available on region 1 disks. Of course it is possible (and legal) to ‘crack’ and get round region coding – but that involves tampering with your system, installing software or firmware and possibly even permanently damaging it if it goes wrong. It is here that it suddenly seems that approaches to copyright have got it all wrong and some changes are essential for the sake of the whole industry.

Let me express the two main problems in two simple bullet points:

* It is unfair to make something available in one place only and then prevent people in other places from ever seeing it.
* It is unfair to make something copyright, then not release it at all.

I was talking with director Richard Stanley a while back and he was describing his frustration that, even after much struggling, he couldn’t even get to see his own film Hardware (quite a cult favourite, I believe). It wasn’t out on DVD (though a version has since been released) – in my entire career I had only seen one VHS copy (which could have been pirate, judging by the quality) – instead, the film was just sitting somewhere in a warehouse out of reach of anyone. I had no idea if the film is available anywhere to download and share – but I hope it was! Simply so that people who want to see it can see it. And anyone who wants to call that illegal is really stretching into definition of selfish. It would be kind of ironic if the film’s director is forced to download an illegal copy just to be able to see his own movie!

Region coding is also a highly suspect idea, and one with very little reason behind it. Its impact is less in the case of a film released across the world and in all regions (though even then you can run into versions cut in one region but not in others or better extras/better transfer available from one place but not others, which also makes the system frustrating). When this really becomes destructive though is when you encounter a film that is ONLY released in one region code. The concept of making disks that are playable in one part of the world and not another seems to me to be not that far away from some form of racism. The region coding system is like banning a touring art gallery show from visiting Africa or producing a book that needs a special pair of glasses in order to read it, which of course are only available in the US. Extreme examples possibly, but can you point out a single reason for region coding to exist that has anything to do with me? Anything to do with the people who make the films come to that? It is all based in the grey area that comes in between, which should never have the power to damage the system it is supposed to be facilitating.

I work in the book world, thank goodness, and books are what I collect and write. That’s a much more wholesome world. If I did create a film though, I would prefer that people could buy it from me rather than be forced by region coding to download a pirate copy. BUT, if I created something, I would rather people could download shared copies rather than not see it at all. Calling that illegal also seems to fit the definition of selfishness and unfairness. If they can’t release something properly, then they must expect people to take whatever paths they can to find it – including downloading it if it is there to download. After all – some people care about films a lot as an art form – and caring about films is more important to people than a pointless region code system and the laws it meshes with so unfairly. Therefore it is a legal setup that gets and deserves no respect whatsoever.

To put it bluntly, region coding is one of the forces that makes piracy inevitable and any attempt to stamp out piracy should also feature an effort to stamp out that. A) It’s the only way they could have a hope of succeeding and B) it’s an unfair system full stop.

I like to trot out the example of Australia, who, I believe, has warned that it could be a violation of the Trade Practices Act to sell DVD players that are fixed to one region code. Good for them. I really wonder why everywhere else in the world cannot see what an annoying, pointless and damaging system that is and act accordingly.

Let me express the results of my ranting in two more bullet points:

* It should indeed be illegal to copy something, provided that that something is actually available. If someone owns the copyright to something but can’t be bothered to release it then it should automatically be legal to copy and distribute the material without personal gain.

* Similarly, if a film is released only playable in one part of the world (region coded) then it should be legal to copy and distribute that material in other parts of the world without personal gain.

These two facts seem not only fair to me but obvious. If we could just see some attention given to these problems, in opposition to the unending media hype about piracy and the poor saintly producers that are supposedly losing millions to this evil corruption, then I would be a bit happier. But until that happens, I and many others have no sympathy at all for the industry and its complaining. And I really hope that any system implemented to make life hard for downloaders has the sense to operate in an appropriate way. It is worth remembering that not everything shared on file sharing networks is illegal. Far from it. I have shared my own stuff on there in my time. Distributed my music there for free sharing. And it was great. I loved it. There was something almost liberating about saying bye bye to it and casting it loose to places where I can have no more influence on it at all. If the proposed clamp-down can be suitably selective – targeting certain things that there is no excuse for downloading for instance – and concurrent with a warning (after the pattern of the Australians) against manufacturing region specific DVD players, then that would be acceptable. To simply strangle the whole thing and bring an entire and often valuable and exciting system crashing to the ground without any thought would be decidedly unacceptable. I just wonder which approach I can trust the UK to take. In the past, their record in the ‘ban it rather than think about it’ department has not been very good.

* * *

Wikipedia article on Region Codes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DVD_region_code

A few helpful links on cracking open a region locked DVD drive:

A good general guide is here: http://www.digital-digest.com/dvd/articles/region.html – though it doesn’t make much mention of alternatives to Firmware.

My drive was hardware-locked to region 2. Instead of troubling with firmware, I have had good results using a little free program called Remote Selector – http://www.remoteselector.com/

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Published in: on August 6, 2010 at 1:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

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