Useful Notes / Region Coding

"Region coding" generally refers to the practice of limiting the use or playing of certain electronic media to specific geographic areas. Deliberate region coding started on DVDs, and it mostly applies to films and video games.

Studios do this to control the global release and distribution of their works. They justify it by claiming that it takes time to produce translations for foreign languages, clear censorship standards, abide by copyright terms, and pay local distributors around the world. People generally see this as a weak justification in an age of instant digital distribution, and they point out that this occurs even in places like the UK and Ireland which have no translation requirements and such for a film or game made in the United States.

In most countries, including the United States, it's considered illegal and a form of circumventing Copy Protection to disable region coding. However, in some countries, region coding itself is illegal as violating free trade agreements; Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand all require DVD players sold there to be region-free.

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    DVDs and Blu-rays 
DVD players were the first to use widespread and specific region coding. DVD players assign a number to each region; a DVD with one region number cannot be played on a DVD player with a different region number. The same system applies to PlayStation Portable UMDs and software. The specific region codes are:
  • 0: Either no set region or regions 1-6; this applies to a DVD that can be played on any DVD player anywhere in the world or a DVD player that can play DVDs from any region.
  • 1: The US, Canada, and Bermuda.
  • 2: Most of Europe and the Middle East, South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Japan.
  • 3: East and Southeast Asia except for China and Japan.
  • 4: Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Latin America (except French Guiana).
  • 5: Africa (except Egypt, South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland), South Asia (including India), Central Asia, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Mongolia, and North Korea.
  • 6: Mainland China.
  • 7: Reserved for internal use by the MPAA; often used for copies sent to censors and critics before consumer release.
  • 8: Distant transportation venues, such as airplanes and cruise ships, for use in international skies and waters, although many of these venues just use the format and player type of their home nations.
  • 9: All eight regions combined.

Region coding was predictably one of the first things to be cracked on DVD players. In the United States, it's technically illegal to circumvent region coding, as with any DRM. In other countries, it's completely legal, but it may invalidate your warranty on some devices. A few countries, like Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong, have made DVD region locking illegal and require all DVD players sold there to be region-free or have the ability to turn off region coding. In other countries, like Sweden and Malaysia, you can easily get a region-free DVD player, but you have to ask for it first.

Blu-ray discs have their own region coding, which are much less torturous:
  • A: The Americas and most of Asia;
  • B: Europe, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand;
  • C: China, the former USSR, and other parts of Asia not covered by Region A.

    Video Game Consoles 
Most older video game consoles have a natural region coding simply because of different television display formats on analog sets. Even in the digital age, this is likely to continue thanks to sheer tradition. Most of the world is split between PAL (Europe and Oceania) and NTSC (the Americas and most of Asia), with further splits in NTSC formatting for video games between the Americas, Japan, China, and Korea. However, additional region locking devices have been around since the 1980s, ostensibly to prevent piracy but which effectively acted as a region coding scheme. Devices that circumvent this protection are technically illegal but remain popular for certain systems to facilitate Import Gaming.
  • Nintendo was the first to introduce region locking on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1984 with a lockout chip called the 10NES. While its purpose was to prevent piracy and Shovelware by ensuring that only Nintendo-certified games would run on the system, it had the side effect of region locking the console; the Japanese, US, and European versions all had slightly different versions of the chip, so a game that ran on one version would not run on the others. In particular, the original Japanese Famicom had a cartridge slot with fewer pins than the export NES, and it also had a DB15 expansion port which was removed from the US version, preventing US gamers from using Japanese peripherals.
  • The Super NES had the same copy protection chip on all consoles worldwide, so preventing shovelware didn't imply region locking on that system; but the SNES did have two plastic tabs that physically prevented you from inserting a Japanese Super Famicom game into the system (a scheme later used by the Nintendo 64). You could fix that with a pair of pliers (and a willingness to void your warranty), but you would still run into problems trying to play a PAL game on an NTSC console or vice-versa; some games would even detect an incorrect speed and display a message telling you that your game is in the wrong region. One way around that was with a cartridge with its own cartridge slot on top, essentially plugging a cartridge into another cartridge into the SNES; this was also the only way to beat the system's lockout chip.
  • The Sega Genesis has an odd region coding system. Sega, trying to cut costs, designed the console so that changing the region is as simple as swapping a few jumpers on the motherboard to change the console's clock speed and language. Once you did that, you could effectively change the console's region (although you did have to fiddle with Japanese cartridges to get them to fit into other regions' consoles and vice-versa). Chinese companies also made several "region adapters" that plugged in between the console and the cartridge. Early games never even bothered with region coding; some even used the settings for Country Switch purposes.
  • Early portable consoles tended to lack region coding, on the theory that (a) they don't use a TV and (b) since you can easily take the system anywhere around the world, you should be able to play any game you may find there. But later portable consoles made extensive use of region coding:
    • The Nintendo DSi has region locking, but only for specific DSi features, such as online compatibility; only downloadable games have region coding themselves.
    • The Nintendo 3DS has region locking for both cartridge and downloadable games. Nintendo allegedly incorporates a whitelist database on each device, which contains a list of valid games; games not on the list won't run. This is supposedly why the 3DS regularly gets updates even when there are no new features or bug fixes, and why original DS cartridges need to be validated online (resulting in you needing Internet to play a DS game on a 3DS) before they added a separate DS whitelist.
    • The PSP has region coding for UMD movies, the same as for DVDs, and it also has optional region coding for games; for instance, EA used it to lock copies of BattleZone sold in Asia so that they would only play on Asian PSPs (probably because it's so much cheaper in Asia than elsewhere). Sony also uses region coding to limit certain features and applications; Asian PSPs will not detect or launch the comic book viewer app, and only Japanese and British PSPs can use the Remote TV Viewer app to remotely watch content received and recorded by the PS3 USB tuner (which was only sold in the UK and Japan).
  • Strangely, only two PlayStation 3 games have any region locking. One is Persona 4: Arena, which Atlus blamed on the game's extremely delayed European release (although it was totally region-locked elsewhere, even between regions which already had the game, despite the PS3's ability to make all versions run on all consoles except European ones); there was such a backlash to that decision (leading to European gamers cancelling pre-orders) that Atlus didn't dare do it again. The second is Joy Sound Dive, a Japanese PSN exclusive game, which not only won't run on a non-Japanese PS3, it won't even run on a Japanese PS3 which recognizes that it's not in Japan; this is likely because it's a karaoke game and JASRAC (the Japanese RIAA counterpart) would complain otherwise about music reproduction rights. Some other games (like Mobile Suit Gundam Extreme vs. Full Boost and Army of Two) are region-free but have region-locked online play, ostensibly to prevent extreme imbalances in ability between regions.
  • The Eighth Generation of Console Video Games may be heralding the end of region locking in video game consoles. Sony received such a backlash from its two region-locked PS3 games that it pledged a region-free PlayStation 4. Microsoft originally intended to region-lock the Xbox One to only 21 countries, but backed out when critics vocally protested. Nintendo, ever concerned about shovelware, maintained region coding on the Wii U, but it abandoned it for the Nintendo Switch, making it the company's first ever region-free home console. Although region locking remains an option for developers, few of them want to deal with that anymore.

    Encoding Standards 
We've mentioned this before, but one way to enforce region locking (whether you want to or not) is through encoding standards — that is, the way a television picks up signals and sends them to your screen. This would affect VHS, DVD, video games — anything that uses a TV. If your film or game uses a different encoding standard than the TV you're trying to watch or play it on, it won't work.

The analog TV standards are PAL, SECAM, and NTSC. In general, NTSC was used in the Americas (except Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay), Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Burma, and the Philippines; SECAM was used in France, the former Soviet Union, West Africa, and other French possessions (current and former), and PAL was used for most of Europe, Asia, the rest of Africa and South America, Australia, and New Zealand. The main difference arises in the color encoding standards and the "refresh rate" (i.e. how the TV knows when and where to put the frames on the screen). The transmission standard is further divided into System A through System S, and it's possible to mix and match transmission and color encoding standards.

It wasn't as bad as you'd think, though. Because PAL and SECAM use the same frame rate standards, it's possible for one system to show another tape, but only in black and white because of the different color standards. Some later VHS machines in the UK could even adjust to play US-format NTSC tapes. And Asia had a ton of multi-world VCRs just because of the different standards used all over the place (largely based on which Western power ran the place when the system was implemented).

Video game consoles had a region locking scheme based on this with standards like NTSC-U/C (the Americas), NTSC-J (Japan), NTSC-K (Korea), and NTSC-C (China), which don't even have anything to do with the transmission standards we just described. For the most part, though, they didn't differ too much in how a game was displayed on the screen.

In the digital age, we don't need analog standards anymore, but this just leads to different classifications. There are four digital systems now: ISDB is used in South America, Japan, and the Philippines; ATSC is used in North America and South Korea; DVB is used in Europe and the rest of Asia; and DMB is used in China (and as a secondary system for portable receivers in South Korea, which technically uses a different version incompatible with the Chinese version). To further complicate matters, there are two versions of DVB, and tuners built for version 2 are backwards-compatible with version 1, but not vice-versa, which causes headaches for countries like Malaysia and Singapore who were early adopters. It's incredibly difficult for a country to change standards, too. And to top it off, HD images can be 24, 25, or 30 frames per second, but many American TVs refuse to recognize 25fps output.

    Cell Phones 
Cell phones are weird, as they tended to be region locked based on frequency range (before modern cell-phones went to multi-band world phones). A cell phone in one region wouldn't be compatible with the cell network in another. This is in addition to SIM-locking, where the phone can only work with a SIM card from the company that sold you the service (a practice which isn't even legal in all countries).
  • In the 2G era, it was usually the American 850MHz/1.9GHz against the rest of the world's 900MHz/1.8GHz. Quad-band 2G phones would allow you to use both networks.
  • In the 3G era, it got more complicated. The US used 850MHz/1.7GHz/1.9GHz, most of the rest of the world used 900MHz/2.1GHZ, and Japan, Korea, and Australia had their own 800MHz band (but only for very isolated places like the Australian outback). Penta-band 3G phones would work everywhere except those isolated places, and hex-band 3G phones would work everywhere.
  • In the 4G era, we've now got at least eight bands: the US uses 700MHz/1.7GHz/1.9GHz, most of the rest of the world uses 800MHz/1.8GHz/2.6GHz, and some third-world countries use 850MHz/1.2GHz. Then you have the TDD frequencies - 2.3, 2.5, and 3.5 G Hz. So far, there is no world-capable phone that can support all eleven bands, but several phones can support all the non-TDD ones.
  • Samsung region-locks their phones so that they may only be used in the country they're sold in, even if the phone itself isn't SIM-locked. This means that a Galaxy S5 that you buy in, say, Malaysia, can't use a Singaporean SIM card in Singapore no matter what the Malaysian provider is willing to let you do.

    The Greater Internet 
The Internet is becoming the new region coding battleground. Companies will release content on the Internet but restrict viewing or accessing it to certain regions, as verified by IP address. Some services, like YouTube, even allow people to upload their own videos and region-lock them.
  • Online content providers occasionally lock by region:
    • The BBC iPlayer is one of the earliest and most prominent examples. This is because the BBC is funded by a license paid by every household in the UK to allow them to legally watch broadcast television, which makes it otherwise free in the UK. Outside the UK, you can't watch the streaming service because you haven't paid for it. But within the UK, you don't have to pay the license if you don't actually have a TV, but you can still watch the iPlayer since there's no way for the BBC to verify that you do pay the license, making this a very attractive option for cord-cutters; the BBC is having such trouble with this that there's talk of dropping the iPlayer restriction entirely. That said, there have been awkward instances where the BBC in the UK uploads something, only for BBC Worldwide, the international profit-making arm, to block it for copyright reasons.
    • The ABC in Australia has its iView system similarly blocked to non-Australians, but the ABC offers its programming for free just on principle; there is no TV license in Australia like there is in the UK. The ABC claims it's due to licensing issues — i.e. it costs too much for them to ensure that they have the rights to show something outside of Australia — but they do this even to shows they've produced themselves, which is particularly mind-boggling.
    • While Netflix is now available worldwide, it still has region coding; not every show is available in every region. It often happens in a show's home country, where it may be licensed exclusively to some other provider, but which can be shown outside that country on Netflix. This tends not to happen with Netflix exclusives, but you still see it (such as the Netflix-exclusive seasons of Arrested Development being unavailable in Asia).
    • Amazon Prime Video is available in more than 200 countries, of which all but six only have access to a little over a hundred titles; the rest are the first to get pretty much everything.
  • This happens in online video games too:
    • Many MMORPGs have a variant of region coding which prevents you from playing the game if it detects that you are connected to the Internet outside its region. Sometimes this is to ensure that players are matched up with similar players. Other times, it's to ensure compliance with local laws; in Korea, for instance, MMO hosts are required to verify the identities of every registered user, and they usually do this by asking for a Korean resident registration number and copy of a Korean ID card which foreigners wouldn't be able to supply.
    • Konami's eAMUSEMENT Participation program, used for some Konami arcade games, requires a connection to the eAMUSEMENT network in order for the game to work. These services are limited to Japan, some other Asian countries, and the United States (thanks to the presence of Japanese-owned arcade chain Round 1); these arcade games cannot be played in any other country. Unfortunately for Konami, this led to the proliferation of Shoddy Knockoff Products in these parts of the world, and parallel importers also found out that Konami did make versions of these games that did not need eAMUSEMENT to function for the Chinese market.
  • Online stores often do some form of region locking, often by only accepting credit cards from within their own countries. It's particularly annoying when they will still happily let you search and browse through the entire catalog, only for it to tell you you're not allowed to buy what you've found in your region.
    • Amazon locks its MP3 store by preventing you from buying anything unless your IP address belongs to an ISP in the country the store is in. Its app store was also initially only available to a few countries; in earlier years, this mapped to countries where the Kindle was sold.
    • Apple's app store is rather irrationally segregated by region. Certain apps might not be available in your country, even if other apps by the same developer are. It's weird enough for there to be a form to request Apple to make the app available (but it's at the developer's discretion). Apple prefers to do its copy protection through DRM anyway.
    • Most Android Games are not region locked, but some can't be downloaded from the Play Store in certain regions. There are workarounds, though, due to the lack of DRM; you could easily move your game to your other phone, except you can't update it to a new version. Some games also use APK extension, which can be region locked through several means (including GPS location, your telco's MNC code, and basic IP georestrictions).

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