In the crazy world of DRM for DVDs, there's this idea that a Hollywood studio should be able to tell you where you're allowed to watch a DVD after you buy it. They accomplish this with something called "Region Codes." Discs have region-codes and players have region-codes. If you have a Region 1 disc (US and Canada) and a Region 2 player (Europe), and you put the disc in the player, the player will reject it.
But what happens when you take your laptop from New York to London? You're in Region 2, but you bought your device in Region 1. Can you buy a disc in London and play it on your computer?
Yes and no. When a computer manufacturer gets a DVD-decoding license from Hollywood's licensing cartel (the DVD Copy Control Association or CCA), it is allowed to make players that can change regions up to five times.
What's more, once the region-switches have run out, computer companies can reset your counter at a service depot a further five times. That means that you get 25 region-switches. This sucks pretty bad: I moved from San Francisco to London with hundreds of Region 1 DVDs and now when I buy a movie in the shop, it's Region 2. That means that if I watch a movie from my US collection once a week, and once from my UK connection the next week, I'll run out of region switches in three months. Three months after moving to the UK, I'll have to throw out half my DVDs.
So, basically, I don't watch my DVDs. Sometimes, though, I'm weak, and I tune into one and squander one of my precious region switches. Now my nearly-new Powerbook has only one switch left out of its initial five, and so I brought it to Apple to get them to reset the counter. It needed service anyway (I'm on my fifth or sixth screen replacement for the defect in the 15" machines that causes the "white blobs" to obscure the display), so it seemed like a good time to do it.
I know that Apple is allowed to do this. How do I know? Well, when EFF went to the Copyright Office and asked it to give us an exemption to the DMCA to make tools for watching out-of-region DVDs, Time-Warner showed up and told us this:
"And, the way it works, and I apologize because it's a little bit complicated, the consumer can set it five times. After the fifth time that they've reset it, they do have an ability to reset it again, but they have to bring the drive to an authorized dealer or an authorized service representative, who can then authorize an additional set of five changes, and then they can bring it back for a second, for a third, fourth and fifth set of authorized changes. So you can change it 25 times in total, but you have to go back for each set of five. You only get the first five when you buy the ROM drive itself."That was Dean Marks, from AOL Time Warner. Straight from the horse's mouth, testifying to the US government.
But when my Powerbook was ready for pickup, Apple left me a voicemail saying that they couldn't reset my DVD player, that doing so would void my warranty.
When I went into the Apple Store in London to get the machine, I asked about it. I wanted this in writing: if they had a policy that said that they couldn't fix my region-counter, I wanted to be able to tell Dean Marks about it the next time we went to the Copyright Office and ask him why Apple thought it couldn't reset my counter.
Apple refused to put it into writing. They refused to let me record them telling me they couldn't fix my Powerbook. They wouldn't even put in writing that they were referring me to the legal department. Eventually I spoke to the manager, who promised to get back to me the next day.
The next day, he did. He told me that he'd spoken to legal and that they wouldn't put anything in writing. However, they did have some documents on their website they printed for me that talk about DVDs.
- DVD Player: About DVD-Video Regions, last modified July 16, 2004, technical contributor J Scalo. This document describes the different regions, saying that after five region-switches, "the drive is permanently set to use that region, and you cannot make any more changes."
Interestingly, this also contains something labeled APPLE EYES ONLY that says that
On Wallstreet and PDQ (PowerBook G3 Series M4753), the number of region code changes remaining is not stored in the firmware of the DVD drive but rather in the DVD extension and NVRAM. This information should absolutely not be conveyed to the customer.
In extreme customer satisfaction situations you can reset the region change count by following this procedure:
- Reset PRAM/NVRAM by pressing Fn-Ctrl-Shift-Power while the computer is turned off
- Startup with system extensions off.
- Restart with system extensions on.
After following this procedure, the region change count for the drive is reset to five.
In later PowerBook models, the region count is stored in the firmware of the drive and cannot be reset with this procedure.
- Changing the region code of your DVD drive, last modified on January 23, 2004. This document says that you can only change your region code five times. "After that, the region code is set permanently and you cannot change it."
- The studios have screwed the electronics companies with this region code business and I have to throw out my DVDs or buy an extra Powerbook or something
- Worse, though: Apple has a policy about region-changing that is more restrictive than it has to be: they're playing for the other side. This really stinks and makes me wonder why I should keep on buying Apple hardware.
Update: Many of you have written to point out that VLC plays out of region DVDs on a Powerbook. That's nice, but it doesn't work reliably on my Powerbook.
Update 2: Thanks for all the tips on how to hack my Powerbook or change its firmware. I'm afraid that I'm not in the market for this, though, tempting as it is, as I've been informed that using these tools will void my warranty.
I write books. My latest is a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). More books: Rapture of the Nerds (a novel, with Charlie Stross); With a Little Help (short stories); and The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (novella and nonfic). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.