Friday, March 20, 2009

Bad laws return to bite you

Most people in India don't know or care about DVD region codes because most players sold here are "region-free". Most people in the US don't care because the rest of the world doesn't exist -- however, holidaymakers routinely return home to find that the DVDs they bought in Europe don't work. But DVDs have an annoying technology built into them, on the insistence of the Motion Picture Association of America, called region control. DVDS are meant to be played only in their region of sale: the US and Canada fall in region 1, most of Europe is region 2, India is region 5. The intention was that players sold in a region can only play DVDs sold in that region. This intention is legally enforced in the US and UK. But in many countries, including India, region-free DVD players are freely available and the norm. When I lived in Paris, the Virgin Megastore had an entire shelf of Region-1 (US) DVDs on sale (I don't know the situation today).

So it gives me great pleasure to see that it is not only the lay public that gets tripped up by these laws. When Barack Obama gifted Gordon Brown a set of DVDs, neither Obama, nor his advisors and technical team, nor Brown, realised that they wouldn't work in the UK.

Will this lead to a change in the law? I wouldn't count on it.


Anonymous said...

:) Interesting!

km said...

It's a silly law.

But who cares? DVDs will be gone in another 3-5 years.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

km - replaced by what? Blu-Rays? I don't think so, and they're region-coded too. Downloads? I'd be surprised. I think DVDs will be around for another 20 years or more.

km said...

Rahul: Actually, DVD sales (and rentals) are both badly hit. (Google around for some recent stories in NYT etc.) Not sure if it's just temporary.

On the other hand, streaming services (like Netflix's) and Hulu are taking off in a big way here.

So.. if not 3-4 years, it would be five. But I think unlike CDs, the DVD will die much faster.

Rahul Basu said...

Almost all DVD players can be re-programmed to play DVD's from any region. Didn't Brown's advisers know that or is that (presumably) against the law?

When we bought a DVD player for the institute it played only region 4 but a technician from the company came, pressed some strange sequence of buttons that turned it to an all region DVD player! I think the hardware is the same in all DVD players -- it's probably too complicated to have different hardware for different regions -- so I suspect the region info is coded into the EPROM which can of course be re-programmed.

Amusingly this popular DVD hack site is in the UK. Anyone know Gordon Brown's email address?

Suresh said...

It's certainly an *annoying* law but why is it a bad law?

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Suresh: the DMCA is a bad law because it criminalises harmless behaviour (like watching your own DVD on your own computer that happens to run software, like linux, that has not been "approved"). Essentially it makes breaking encryption on copyrighted digital media illegal, regardless of purpose. It's like saying you can't break the lock on your own house.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Suresh: ps - and if you still wonder why that is bad, it's simply this: if you make the normal behaviour of large numbers of people criminal, you reduce respect for the law. America learned this during the prohibition era, and during the days of the 55mph speed limit. They are now learning it in the digital age. Newer online music stores, like Amazon, don't use DRM ("digital rights management"): they have learned that customers object to being restricted on what they can do with what they have bought and paid for.

Suresh said...


1. You say the law is bad because it criminalizes the normal behavior of individuals. This begs the question: What exactly is the normal behavior of individuals? Is drinking "normal"? Why? I think the better argument for why the US decriminalized drinking is that the cost of enforcing the policy was far more than whatever benefits came from it. Note, however, that the US still criminalizes use of marijuana which many would argue is essentially "harmless."

2. I don't know the DMCA law that well, but regarding DMCA, DVD and Linux, I found the following on

This is a comment by Computer and Communications Industry Association and seems to suggest that the situation is more complex. In particular, the comment says CCIA believes, however, that once a consumer purchases a DVD, he should be able to view it on any platform he pleases; he should not be locked into a specific platform. Accordingly, CCIA supports an exception to Section 1201 that would permit the development, sale, and use of a product that enables DVDs to run on Linux. The problem, according to the comment, concerns the Licensing policy governing open-source software. I guess this is a reference to the GPL which mandates supplying the code source. However, the comment is dated 2000 and I don't know the current state of affairs. I think it is the same, viz. in the US/Europe, watching DVDs on most Linux systems amounts to breaking the law because the decryption is done via a non-approved software. Apparently, there are some legal software (Linspire. LinDVD).

3. A better way to look at the DMCA act is to acknowledge that there is a genuine issue here, viz. fear of piracy. (If you think that this is not a real issue, then there is nothing to say.) The problem with the DMCA, one can say, is that this law addresses the issue by inflicting huge costs on Linux users (and others). So, is there a better way of addressing the piracy problem? Unfortunately, that's something which appears not easy to answer.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Suresh: yes, probably the majority of US adults drink and a very large number use marijuana. Neither behaviour typically endangers others, except when you try to drive or operate machinery. So criminalising it is couterproductive.

The link you supply says the CCIA supports an exception to the DMCA to permit a Linux DVD player. First, no such exemption has actually been enacted, as far as I know. Second, their support is rather limited. What about other platforms (FreeBSD, etc)? The sane thing to do is to permit viewing on any platform. If, hypothetically, the encryption had not been broken, I would not suggest that it be forcibly made public (though I do think DVD encryption is counterproductive and silly). Even now that it has been broken, I don't argue that distribution of the decryption mechanism be illegal in the US (though I think it is impossible to stop distribution and counterproductive to try). But the law says that I cannot even decrypt my own DVD for my own personal viewing. That is taking things too far.

There is no DMCA-like law in Europe that I know of.

The fear of piracy may be legitimate but it is much exaggerated historically. The movie industry tried to squash videotapes and DVDs before embracing them and realising that they were in fact bigger sources of revenue than theatres. There is certainly a business model in the internet if they can find it.

Suresh said...

But the law says that I cannot even decrypt my own DVD for my own personal viewing. That is taking things too far.

Not quite. In the US, where the DMCA applies, it puts restrictions on the software that can be used to decrypt DVDs. In particular, the software must have obtained the appropriate licence for the CSS keys. In Linux, almost all of the available software uses the DeCSS program which obtained the keys by reverse engineering. This is possible because the encryption in DVDs is so damn weak.

It may be that Hollywoood is exaggerating the fear of piracy. But anyone who has seen sites like (which gives streaming Tamil movies barely a week after release) or some Chinese sites (containing whole Hollywood movies and American sitcoms) can hardly believe that this is not a serious problem. Not for nothing did the famous British comedy group Monty Python launch their own YouTube channel. Here's what they say on their YouTube page:

For 3 years you YouTubers have been ripping us off, taking tens of thousands of our videos and putting them on YouTube. Now the tables are turned. It's time for us to take matters into our own hands.

We know who you are, we know where you live and we could come after you in ways too horrible to tell. But being the extraordinarily nice chaps we are, we've figured a better way to get our own back: We've launched our own Monty Python channel on YouTube.

I myself am a Linux user, so I am not pleased with the situation as it exists. Nonetheless, there is an issue here which needs to be addressed.

Your point about the law not giving an excemption for a situation where the decryption was done for watching one's own legally purchased DVD is well-taken, but how do we make this distinction in practice? Anyone caught can claim that he/she was only using it for one's own personal use. With such fine-tuning, the law might just about be useless.

To conclude, I am not defending the status quo. All I am saying is that there is a legitimate issue which needs to be addressed.

Regarding Europe and DMCA, please see the following Wikipedia page: