Friday, December 2, 2011

A Retrospective on Regional Lockout

I haven't had to worry about regional lockouts for very long, but only since my issue with Namco X Capcom has it really bothered me much. And because I'm a fan of Japanese anime, I have found plenty of series airing in Japan. Despite some American anime distributors have fallen apart recently, many more have come either out of them or formed on their own. This creates a much larger market where some companies such as Funimation and Bandai Entertainment release more popular series while others such as Sentai Filmworks and Anime Works would release some series either too obscure or weird for the others to bother with. These many distributors still leave many series unlicensed and only available in Japan. For anyone outside, they would have to watch fansubs which are legally ambiguous.

Having to deal with these restrictions that would normally keep me from experiencing other countries' entertainment and culture. This is what brought my attention to regional lockout and region codes. I originally wrote this blog to create a decent source for others to learn about regional lockout as well as its impact on the public, but to find content to post in it, I had to do much further research into it and get perspectives from a few people. I learned much more than what I was already aware of.

My perspective has already been that regional lockout is a problem, and I've found many that agree with me. The only advantages of the system affect the distributors and license holders. I do understand that if these distributors aren't able to profit off their work, they won't be able to stay around to make more, but if regional lockout would be removed, these distributors shouldn't lose too much if not actually make more sales off international sales.

American Media Internationally

Anime in America has grown significantly since the 1990s when it was originally developed a small fan base. Other international movies and shows have been known present in America well before then. But in America, a vast majority of our media industry is domestically produced, though sometimes made in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean animation studios.

The American media industry, on the other hand, is much more popular internationally than foreign media is in America. The proportion of anime fans in Japan is roughly the same as it is in America if not only slightly larger. They also have shows such as 24, The Simpsons, South Park, and even Power Rangers, the American adaptation of Japan's own series Super Sentai. The genre called "mahou shoujo" or "magical girl", though it is a genre unique to anime and rarely made in any other country, is actually originally inspired by the old American sit-coms Bewitched and I Dream of Jeanie.

There are also plenty of countries with little domestic television and movie industry. As mentioned by Dr. Marc Hairston in my interview with him, Turkey, as well as I suspect other countries, sell DVD players with a free service to make them region free.

The market of America produced media is evidently significant in other countries, and retailers have completely different policies and services to satisfy it. If regional lockout was enforced everywhere, these countries will need localizing distributors for each of these regions which I don't expect them to afford to have.

Jonathan Clement's blog Schoolgirl Milky Crisis
as well as my interview with him
interview with Dr. Marc Hairston

Many Games We Miss Out On

As I demonstrated in my previous post, I have a copy of Namco X Capcom ("X" is pronounced "Cross") for the Playstation 2 that I purchased while visiting Japan. This was a game I had been anticipating many years since I found out about it back when I mostly watched the TV channel G4 (G4 Tech TV back then).

Namco X Capcom is a crossover ("X-over"?) game that includes characters from both Namco and Capcom franchises and was published by Namco. The game overall works as a tactical RPG with units being either solo characters or teams of two, but when a unit/team engages another, it transitions to a short, simple, and somewhat one-sided (one side only attacking, the other defending) fighting game. Players are also able execute spectacular special attacks that include either just one unit or several that work together in occasionally humorous ways.

Altogether, this appears to be a game many people would look forward to, and as you can see from my copy was rereleased as part of "The Best" series which is a budget edition much similar to "Greatest Hits" in North America or "Platinum" in PAL regions. Statuses like this are only given to games that have a reached a certain number of copies sold (somewhere between 150,000 and 400,000 for "Greatest Hits" in North America) which makes me figure, Namco X Capcom was already popular enough in Japan.

When I first heard about this game, I looked for stuff about it on the Internet including videos of things like opening cinematics and gameplay. I eventually also found an online petition for it being released overseas. I was later greatly disappointed when I found out Namco wouldn't distribute the game in America, though.

You would also expect that any audience would love a good crossover game between characters from different franchises. Capcom frequently makes fighting games for their Capcom's Vs series (Marvel vs Capcom, SNK vs Capcom, Tantsunoko vs Capcom). I would understand if they didn't expect outside audiences to recognize out of the advertised over 200 character cameos about the half of them never released outside of Japan. "Who the heck are Wonder Momo and Bravoman?" But the same argument can be said about the other vs Capcom games. Tatsunoko Production is an anime studio that released series such as Gachaman, and I wouldn't be surprised if anybody didn't recognize Gold Lightan or Yatterman. Tatsunoko vs Capcom hadn't been intended to be released outside Japan, but positive reception at Electronic Entertainment Expo 2009 convinced otherwise. Tatsunoko Productions did have difficulty passing the rights for the characters in other countries as is usually the case with crossover games and other media, but I would expect that Namco would only need to confirm with Capcom for its characters rather than several distribution companies. I would also expect that putting these characters in this game wouldn't only confuse anyone unfamiliar because likely many Japanese wouldn't recognize all 200 of these characters but it could inspire them to try to find out more about them if they find them enjoyable enough.

While I was in Japan a few years ago as part of a Japanese language and culture class, one of the objectives I set for myself was to get a copy of Namco X Capcom for myself. I also wanted (and failed) to get a copy of Metal Wolf Chaos for the original Xbox, another game I expect Americans to enjoy though for different reasons. While I was there looking for these games, I noticed a Nintendo DS game that had recently been released called Mugen no Frontier: Super Robot Taisen OG Saga and released by Namco Bandai Games. What caught my attention to it was that I recognized a couple characters and mistook it for Namco X Capcom. Though it has 4 original characters in it, it also has 3 other playable characters as cameos: Reiji Arisu, Xiaomu (pronounced Sho-mu), and KOS-MOS. I picked it up there expecting it to not be released in America either, and since Nintendo DS games weren't region coded back then, I could play it just fine only with a little confusion with the Japanese text.

About a year later, I discovered that this game was released in North America as Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier. What mainly confuses me about this is that of course fans of Xenosaga in America would recognize KOS-MOS, but even they will be asking "Who are Reiji and Xiaomu? And, more importantly, why does KOS-MOS know them?" which should have been established in Namco X Capcom since Reiji and Xiaomu were original characters introduced in Namco X Capcom and personally met and fought along with KOS-MOS during the game.

Namco X Capcom is only an example of a game I would expect to be popular enough to warrant releasing it internationally. But there are plenty of games that wouldn't be expected to be popular outside of Japan. Would you really want to play a fighting game using battle construction vehicles? Another market of "games" (of which I use the term loosely) is visual novels. Visual Novels are essentially programs that present a story with images, text, and occasional dialog options and branching paths much like choose-your-own-adventure stories. These types of stories are more often "dating sims" or just romantic plots with one or more girls (or boys). This at first doesn't seem that appealing, but lately more anime series are produced as adaptations of visual novels, and some are eventually brought over to other countries. I suspect that any fans of these anime adaptations would want to experience the story in its original form, the visual novel. More often they are PC games, but the more popular series have been ported to game consoles such as Playstation 2 and then inherently region coded.

If these games would be unpopular outside of Japan, that's fine and I can accept that. But for anyone that is interested and willing and able to import any foreign game to their country and play it in its original language, this shouldn't be a problem, and that's another sell for the manufacturer. For a hardcore import gamer, they can just by another console to play other regions, but someone just interested in a few or just one game, that kind of investment shouldn't be necessary. The regional lockout holds back the market for the smaller, less popular games that wouldn't be officially distributed in other countries.

Finding Region Codes

Most packaging of DVDs and games have some sort of mark on them identifying the region they are supposed to belong to. Most of these are small and a little difficult to find. I have made a "podcast" video to demonstrate where to find these region code labels. For anyone who can't play the video's format, I apologize since that's what iMovie exported it as.

To summarize the video, Playstation (or PS1) games have a label on the top-left of the front just under the "PS" logo as well as on the hinge. For the single disk games this is the same as the manual for the game, but multiple disk games have a cover separate from the manual.

Playstation 2 (PS2) games have the region label on the top-right of the cover and on the bottom of the spine.

Playstation 3 (PS3) games aren't region coded, so they don't need any label to identify their region. They do have some sort of image that's on the bottom of the spine of the package that appears to be of a globe and a number. This to me is very ambiguous, and I have no idea what it's supposed to be.

The Nintendo Wii is region locked as well as the Gamecube, but their games don't have labels like Playstation games. Instead, all they have is a not that says "For sale, rental and use only in USA, Canada, Mexico and Latin America." I also have a copy of Blazblue: Continuum Shift II for Nintendo 3DS which has a not on the package that says "Plays on Nintendo 3DS systems sold for the Americas only." Other Nintendo 3DS as well as Nintendo DS games released post-DSi should have a similar note somewhere on their packaging, as well.

I have games for the original Xbox, but their region labels are very similar to the PS2's so I didn't demonstrate them in the video. But they instead say just "NTSC" on mine instead of "NTSC U/C" or "NTSC J". I would expect this means that my games will work with any other NTSC region Xboxes and not with any that are for PAL or other regions. I am unable to test this, though.

DVDs have a consistent system in them. Distributors often print technical details such as run time and video and audio format somewhere on the package, usually near the bottom of the back. Among these details should be a label for the DVD's region which should look like a globe with a number inside. I have noticed the globe to be in different styles and shapes, but it is consistently a globe and the number 1 on my DVDs.

For anyone that wants to import their DVDs and games, make sure you confirm the region of your product before complaining that it doesn't work with your local player or game console.

Guest Blog: Samuel Eldridge

Guest Blogger: Sam

Regional lockouts have always been a pet peeve of mine, and while I understand the foundational reasons for their use, I have always found them to be a lazy way of achieving other goals.
Games and movies help plant the seeds for technological imagination, and in return, advances in technology help further along the capabilities of games and movies. It is an ever ongoing spiral, and as a species we should be moving towards removing any and all walls that may stand in the way of advancement.

As a student in game design it is a little uncomfortable to think that a game I create some day may not be distributed in some section of the world due to a reason like regional lockouts. To me the idea of running a company, spending millions of dollars in production costs and working with a team that has devoted itself for several years on a product that may only be distributed in one country is something that does not sit well, and I find it hard to believe that I am the only one who feels this way.

Recently Xenoblade was released in Japan, Europe, Australia, and much to the dismay of US game players; Nintendo announced they had no plans to release the game here in the states. While a few years ago this would have meant that most US gamers would not be able to get their hands on it, people who were willing to pay the extra cost were able to order the game right off of Amazon and have it shipped to them just like anything else. From there all it took was a quick “hack” to the players WII and they were off playing the game.

Sites like Amazon combined with increasing internet access around the world, is giving practices like regional locks a very hard time. As people become more educated, and availability becomes easier, new methods are going to need to be adopted, and companies will no longer be able to rely on something as basic as regional locks.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Yuki Watanabe-Sensei: A Perspective from a Japanese Professor

Yuki Watanabe-Sensei is another professor at The University of Texas at Dallas and teaches classes on both Japanese culture and language of which I have attended some of. Her answers to my questions helped provide the perspective of not only a native Japanese but also someone that had difficulty with playing foreign DVDs from traveling internationally.

Are you familiar with regional lockout or region codes?

Vaguely. When we moved to Germany at the beginning of 2005, I brought my brand new laptop computer with me, which gave me 10 chances to play DVD with different region code. When I got the warning saying this is my last chance to set the region permanently, I stopped playing DVD on my computer.

Do you own DVDs? About how many (approximate)? What genres do you prefer?

Since I am not otaku, I own only about 10 DVD's. Some of them were given from our German friends and have never been viewed due to the region issue. I also have a few from Japan, which I never even tried to play.

Do you own video games? About how many (approximate)? What genres do you prefer?

No, I do not.

Do you import DVDs or video games? About how much of your collection? From what countries?

As I said, I have a few from Japan and Germany.

Have you had trouble getting foreign DVDs or games to play?

Yes, on my previous laptop. I have not even tried to play foreign DVD's on my new computer.

How do you usually get around regional lockout?

I do not get around. Just give up.

What is your general opinion of regional lockout? Should it continue or be removed?

I watch a lot of Japanese drama streaming. If I do not care about ads they force you to watch at the beginning, I can watch pretty much all the drama that aired recently via streaming. Of course you have to put up with lower picture quality and occasional pause due to slow loading. In order to compete with all the streaming venues online, regional lockout should go away. If there are people willing to purchase DVD or games from abroad, the manufacturers should take advantage of them. Especially, I think small production groups will benefit if the lockout is removed. I think the time where producers tried to sell tangible products is pretty much over. However hard you try to protect your copy righted material, there is always a way around it just as the case of region lockout. In my opinion, content producers should try to market the familiarity of their product so people will recognize it and maybe willing to pay for some related merchandize or content that cannot be transmitted via online.

Are there any other comments you would like to share?

Artistic creation may be discouraged if this trend continues since there is no guarantee that you make big profit from your creation. But if you ask what the true goal of artistic creation is, it should not be to make money but to express yourself and share it with other people.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dr. Marc Hairston: Interview with an Otaku Professor

Before I interviewed Jonathan Clements, I had know to get in contact with him. I was introduced to Clements by Dr. Marc Hairston, a professor of astronomy at The University of Texas at Dallas, though he includes anime and manga among his expertise and occasionally helps teach literature classes that focus on the topic of anime. He is also the advisor to UTD's anime club, SPOON, which I am currently the president of.

Are you familiar with regional lockout or region codes?

Yes, I've known about them since DVDs first came out in the 90s.

Do you own DVDs? About how many (approximate)? What genres do you prefer?

Like Jonathan said, I've lost count, but I'm sure he's ahead of me. I have over 500, but all of them are domestic other than about 30+ Japanese ones I have.

Do you own video games? About how many (approximate)? What genres do you prefer?

My son plays with a Wii. I'm so old school that the last computer game I played was an interactive text game back in the late 80s on an Amiga computer. I do admit to having Angry Birds on my iPhone.

Do you import DVDs or video games? About how much of your collection? From what countries?

Like I said, I have about 30 to 40 DVDs that I've imported from Japan, plus a handful of ones from Britain and Brazil and Mexico.

Have you had trouble getting foreign DVDs or games to play?

Back about 1999 I bought an all-region DVD player (for about twice the cost of a regular DVD player) just so I could watch the Japanese DVDs I was getting. I never had any trouble getting
the Japanese ones to play on it, but the British ones were PAL, so the TV couldn't handle the signal.

How do you usually get around regional lockout?

In addition to the DVD player, I ended up buying an extra DVD player-burner for my computer and set it to region 2 (Japan and Britain) and kept the internal DVD reader set to region 1. That's how I was finally able to watch the PAL DVDs from Britain.

Of course there's always the gray area of watching fansubs that are posted on-line.

What is your general opinion of regional lockout? Should it continue or be removed?

The lockout was developed by Hollywood lawyers back in the 90s when movies were released over a period of 12 months throughout the world. What they didn't want was for "Blockbuster A" to come out in the US in June and then be released on DVD six months later when it still hasn't come out in Japan and Australia and South America yet. The home DVDs would arrive by import in those places before the theatrical release did. Since then big films tend to be released worldwide within about month so this is not an issue (at least for the blockbuster films). I liked Jonathan's comment about anime being able to afford music if they buy just the Japanese rights but couldn't if they had to pay for the worldwide rights so that's one of the few positive side effects of region coding. But with distribution over the internet becoming the primary means of distribution I think region-coding will ultimately become a non-issue.

I'll tell you a story about how region coding is seen outside the US. Here in the US I would say less than 5% of the population is even aware that DVDs are region-coded. That's because the typical US viewer only watches US DVDs and isn't interested in any films or shows from outside the US. However, every other country on this planet (Europe included) watches a mixture of domestically-made TV and films as well as the Hollywood program that the US exports. So 100% of the population in, say, Turkey knows that the shows they want to watch come from two or maybe three different DVD region codes. In the late 90s we had a post-doc in our department who
was from Turkey and he told me that every store in Turkey that sold DVD players (from the hole in the wall local shop to the big department stores) would "fix" the player free of charge when you
bought it to make it region-free player. (This usually required them to just open the box and snip two or three legs on a particular chip, and they knew which ones to snip on which models.) So 100% of the DVD players in Turkey were region-free and my friend was buying up lots of DVD movies on Amazon to watch and then ship to his brother back in Turkey. So the whole system the US lawyers set up to prevent revenue loss from foreign sales was being circumventing everywhere *except* in the US! That's when I first realized that trying to protect rights and sales with region-coding was a broken system.

Are there any other comments you would like to share?

Again, I liked Jonathan's point about how getting worldwide rights for music or providing translations for multiple languages ahead of time for simultaneous releases puts a high upfront
financial burden on smaller productions (like most anime shows) and if we and they aren't careful we're going to end up reducing anime to just the lowest common denominator and killing off the more interesting and niche shows. But region-coding was just a stopgap along the digital conversion of media and something else will evolve to either replace it or make it unnecessary.

Jonathan Clements: e-mail Interview within the Industry

One of my professors at The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) suggested I contact Jonathan Clements for an interview from someone within the anime industry. Clements is a citizen of the United Kingdom and works as a translator and script writer. He is the author of the book Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures of the Anime and Manga Trade and co-author of The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917. Clements also runs his own blog also called Schoolgirl Milky Crisis.

His answers to my questions are much longer than I anticipated, but I very much appreciate him for responding to me and providing such detail.

Do you own DVDs? About how many (approximate)? What genres do you prefer?

Yes. About two thousand, I think. I lose count, and a dozen review copies arrive every month, so it's an ever-expanding vortex. Much of the material here for my work is Japanese TV and cartoons. My wife is working her way through all the AFI, IMDB and Motion Picture Academy top tens and top 100s so we have a lot of old movies lying around, as well as many box sets of TV, particularly from HBO and Showtime.

DVDs are cheap enough now that I often treat them like a movie ticket. Even if it's £20, that's still more or less what it would cost for the pair of us to go to the cinema, so I happily pay that, and if I never think I am going to watch the film again, it gets recycled.

Do you own video games? About how many (approximate)? What genres do you prefer?

I think I own about four or five video games, all of which I wrote the scripts for, or translated, so they're on the shelf because they were "mine". I keep video games out of the house otherwise, as I know that I would never get any work done otherwise.

Do you import DVDs or video games? About how much of your collection? From what countries?

I import DVDs mainly from Japan. Some from the US and occasionally China and Australia. I suppose 60% of my collection is imported, but my "collection" is for work purposes. In terms of what I would actually buy as a consumer, maybe more like 5% is imported.

Have you had trouble getting foreign DVDs or games to play?

No. Amazon Japan and deliver to my door. But the threat of there *being* trouble has affected my purchases. See below.

How do you usually get around regional lockout?

I use a multi-region DVD player. I have not bothered to buy any Blu-rays because a multi-region Blu-ray player is much harder to get. A friend of mine tried to chip his to play all regions, and it then took itself online, saw that it was an abomination, and committed ritual suicide, turning itself into a hunk of useless, expensive metal. I'm not prepared to take that risk. Occasionally, I do hear of a Blu-ray disc that has some feature or functionality that might make it worthwhile for me to see it, but nothing has made me want to rush out and spend hundreds of pounds on new hardware. A lot of the stuff I write about is so old anyway that a Blu-ray transfer really isn't going to make that big a difference. It'll just cost more.

I think, if regional lockout had been less of an issue, I probably would have bought a Blu-ray player by now. But I just can't be bothered because of these risks. I do understand that Blu-ray has a higher level of quality, but it's not so world-shatteringly big an issue for me that I have to have it right now: Schoolgirl Milky Crisis - Perceived Value

What is your general opinion of regional lockout? Should it continue or be removed?

There has been some form of regional lockout for as long as I can remember. Originally it was accidental. America and Japan shared the NTSC video format, but I grew up in England, where the video system is PAL. So I've always had to consider conflicting standards, even in the days of VHS.

What irritates me about regional lockout in the 21st century is that it is artificially imposed, at least in part, in order to give one rights holder something to sell to another. I *understand* why this is necessary, but I still don't like it.

The last article in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis (the book) repeats something that I heard a producer say eight years ago: "the next format is no format." Regional lockout is an anomaly. It'll be gone in ten years, because media will be more centralised. Or rather, you will still be locked out in your region until you pay up, but then access will be immediate. There will, however, be other collateral damage: SMC - Blu-Ray Blues

There are other issues. Regional lockout allows for items such as music rights to be paid for on a limited or roll-out basis. Certain anime, for example, simply could not afford to have the music tracks they have if the producers had to buy global rights from the very beginning. If you were to insist that all anime had to be globally available from the first day, you run the risk of fundamentally altering what your beloved anime actually is. Are you, as a consumer, prepared to wear the cost of additional music rights, and up-front performer residuals, or perhaps a shorter series because 20% of the budget had to go on pre-emptive localisation costs?

I have found that one purpose to region codes is to keep customers from only importing from other countries just because it’s cheaper. How do expect media industries such as from Japan, America, and Britain to feel about “reverse importing”?

Yes, that's true. But how the industry might feel about it depends on the content. If, by some odd quirk, the Avatar DVD comes out in Australia a month before it comes out in the USA, you are free to buy it on import. If you want to pay shipping charges, and import duty, and have a set-up at your house whereby you can watch it region-free, then nobody is going to stop you. You're not breaking any laws, and you will have the cultural capital of being able to brag to your friends that you saw Avatar on DVD three weeks before them. Although if they're impressed by that, you need new friends. This is a victimless crime -- in fact, it's not even a crime. Avatar sells one less copy out of millions in the USA, and one more in Australia. Nobody cares, and James Cameron still gets his cut eventually.

Now, let's try a different form of content. What if you are an anime distributor who sells to a tiny market? And I mean *tiny*. What if you make a show that basically only monetises if you can find 500 single men in their thirties who will spend $500 each on bespoke box sets, tie-in figurines, and the like. What if you only expect to sell 500 copies of your niche-of-a-niche DVD box set, but you expect it to pretty much sell out on the day of release? And then some blogger turns up and tells your customer base that a foreign edition has your local language track on it, and costs 95% less than your domestic product? This isn't a hypothetical. This actually happened two years ago, when UK sales of a particular anime went through the roof overnight after a Japanese blogger realised how much cheaper the UK edition was: SMC - Ill Winds

That incident was embarrassing for all sorts of reasons, including the realisation that something getting hyped abroad as cutting-edge and super-popular actually had less fans in its home country than would fill a cinema. And that's the problem with anime and certain other niche areas -- it's not about the big sellers, it's about the little boutique titles that only sell three or four thousand copies, when a four-figure grey import will drastically affect profit and loss in your territory.

It doesn't bother North America or China, because those are both markets where the local language and domestic sales can monetize most titles on a domestic release alone. But it's a big deal in, say, the Netherlands, or Armenia, or Finland, where you have a customer base that would fit twice-over into metropolitan New York, and a language that nobody else speaks. There are also legal issues. Who's going to pay to make a Finnish-language track on a Japanese DVD, if not a Finnish rights-holder?

If there's a shared language, there's nothing *technically* to stop a US company making a Region 0 release and just waiting for UK private consumers to import. But UK *retailers* cannot legally import it, as they need to get it certificated by the local censor: the British Board of Film Classification. That costs money. Normally it's money that would be paid by the distributor, but if there's no distributor, there is nobody to pay for it. So in an entirely centralised world, the original licence holder would have to pay for (how many?) 30 or 40 language tracks, and certification issues in a dozen different countries, and cut stuff for one territory and stick it back in for another. In some senses, it is easier to farm that work out locally. But for there to be a local farm, there needs to be a fence for the local farmers to delineate their territory, and regional lockout is part of that fence.

This can also be an issue in industrial quantities. There was a case in the 1990s where a legal loophole allowed a German distributor to release a well-known anime, in English, in *Germany*. It was cheaper than the UK version, and imported into the UK in a four-figure quantity, seemingly at a retail level -- by which I mean, by wholesalers, not private individuals. This, in turn, completely skewed the sales figures. Although it sold in stores in predicted quantities, the UK rights-holder found out that they were selling 1500 copies *less* than they expected. 1500 is a big number in modern anime. For a region like the UK, it can be 50% of your sales, or more.

I have noticed that regional lockout is becoming less strict lately: Blue-Ray Discs use only 3 regions, the latest generation of game consoles hardly use region codes at all. I also noticed that in your blog you mentioned that Blue-Ray could eventually lead to the anime industry becoming centralized in Japan. Would you figure this to be a good thing or that translations and adaptations should be more left to local companies?

There are less regions, but if you are stuck on one side of the lockout and your desired viewing is on the other, it's just as strict as before. It's actually worse for me, because Japan, where I'd be likely to be buying most of my Blu-rays, is Region A, and I live in Region B. So I preferred the days of DVD, to which I am basically clinging now out of spite.

I think it will be "left to local companies" anyway, in the sense that people will still have to outsource to the correct talent base. That means, if you are a Tokyo company and you need Czech subtitles for your film, you're unlikely to meet a Czech translator at the laundromat. You're probably going to end up Fedexing the work to a Czech. So that's not necessarily a problem.

For me, as I discussed in my article on the Blu-ray Blues, the problem is more of an organisational issue within Japanese companies, as many of them frankly suck at dealing with foreign markets in general. Selling foreign rights allowed them to simply forget about the "foreign-ness" of foreign markets and, hopefully, just collect the money. Some, like Ghibli, have made wonderful, top-class foreign contacts that can do their films justice. Some, haven't. Many Japanese companies regard Japan as the sole market of importance, and the foreign territories as gravy. It might be nice gravy, but it's not gravy that they can rely on.

Some websites such as host videos of anime often even “simulcasting” (uploading a currently airing series usually one hour after airing in Japan). The series on these sites are uploaded by the creators themselves and are very much official supported by ads or paid subscriptions. How do you expect sites like these to affect industries like anime?

The simulcasting model is the future. When there are no packaged goods to put a price tag on, media will be swiftly centralised on servers. Of course, that's going to kill an entire stratum of retail, and probably marketing, too, in many countries. But more work for tech support and programmers.

One of my - and I believe of other fans of foreign shows and games - dilemmas is that many series aren’t expected to be popular enough to be brought to the US. The only hope I/we have of experiencing them is to stream or download them (potentially illegally), which I would argue is unfair. What is your perspective on this?

That's not your "only hope", Princess Leia! And it's not "unfair" if you've decided to have a hobby that will cost you more money to access than Hollywood movies. This is a covetous argument that I like to call, with deliberate and calculated provocation, the "doctrine of lapse". It holds that if the rightful owner of something that you desire has failed to meet your arbitrary expectations, you are justified in acquiring their property by force. The British had great fun waving it around in India.

I don't accept that premise at all. But I concede that it is not your fault that modern media dangle such temptations in front of you, along with the ready technology to steal them. There are also issues here of Access and Ownership, not the least in the premise that anime is your destiny.

For all you know, your most divine and perfect media experience lies in the joy of watching the nose-flute opera of Upper Volta*, but you just haven't discovered it yet. When you do (if you do), will you demand that Upper Volta operas be freely accessible to you, immediately, or else you will steal them? I realise that this makes your point for you, in noting that there are some niches that are so obscure that they attract a smaller audience or even no audience at all, but that's why William Shakespeare at the theatre costs more than Michael Bay in the cineplex.

Crunchyroll have demonstrated that a model based, how can I put this, on what was once the technology of piracy, can be legalized and monetized. However, you need a *lot* of views to monetize on streaming, and while I can see that working for Naruto, Bleach, hentai and movies, I don't see it working for the niche titles that make up so much of modern anime. Subscription is much more concrete, in the sense that you can say to a fan that $40 a season will give him access to everything as often as he wants. Part of the problem with that is that anime fans often exist at a sort of liminal age where they are too young to own credit cards, but there are ways around that with gift cards and Paypal and the like. This is what Anime on Demand is trying in Europe, and I suspect that their fees are spread on a "stable" of films rather than specific titles. So even if you watch just some big-name fan favourite, a portion of your subscription is also subsidising some awful thing about ponies that nobody is really watching. But *both* shows are there on the menu, and people can pick and choose.

It's also worth remembering that the concept of paying directly for anime, apart from via movie tickets, is a relatively new development. It was only introduced in 1983 with the advent of home video. For the bulk of anime's 94-year history, and for the majority of anime's thousands of hours of content, it has been given away, for "free" to consumers in exchange for advertising messages about chocolate, or product placement and context integration selling robot toys. So I suspect that in a decade's time we may be regarding the period 1983-2013 as something of an anomaly, and everything may well return to "normal".

I've got more to say about this, but it's a chapter of the book I'm writing at the moment, and if I keep typing here, I shall never finish it!

My belief is that current technologies such as the Internet would more bring the world together, but it seems that region codes make it difficult to share media. Other than regional lockout the only real barrier is language. What are your thoughts?

Well, up to a point. Region codes are one barrier. Language is another, but those are only the first stages of "Audience and Reception". Culture is another, which is why Sazae-san has never been translated, despite being the top-rated anime in Japan. Technology is another -- not everybody has the means to watch anime. SMC - Lost in Translation

Are there any other comments you would like to share?

(*I made the nose flute opera of Upper Volta up)

I'm going to cut and paste an article from Manga Max #3, January 1999, p.63. I was the magazine editor, and when I was approached by one of the writers with the concept of Regional Lockout, I had never heard of it before. So I gave him a page to talk about it. It's how the concept
looked to us 12 years ago.


Last Word

Ben Carter is ready to crack the code

Territorial Lockout

The world may be made up of countless countries and cultures, but in the minds of many companies it is composed of only three parts – Europe, the US and Japan. These divides exist for many reasons, not least because big companies like it that way. Having three separate areas for product marketing, each with their own standards (both technical and cultural), makes life easier. Product launches can be staggered, and modifications made for each area as necessary.

For many products, the simplest differences – geographical, linguistic or even lack of interest – are enough to enforce the division. However, for some much-awaited new products, be they films or the latest games, there is a vast grey-import market. For companies, this is a blow for several reasons – it opens up the possibility of material “unsuitable” for a particular area appearing with their name on it, equipment may malfunction if forced to operate to foreign specifications and it may even distort sales figures with parallel imports. In one recent case, it was discovered that a quarter of a particular anime’s entire UK sales were being shipped to another European country. This was great news for the UK profits, but a potential time-bomb if the rights were ever sold in that grey-import territory, since thousands would already own the tapes. For these reasons, increasing numbers of manufacturers include security measures to stop products from functioning when used outside their country of origin – the “Territorial Lockout” device.

For a long time, the main worry for anime fans was the division between Europe’s PAL television system and the NTSC system used in the US and Japan. The vast majority of anime is NTSC format only, so fans in PAL regions have learned to cope with the format differences. The massive difficulty in converting between the systems meant that companies had few worries about importers – European and US systems were incompatible, and as far as mass-market media went, the level of imports to the US from Japan were negligible.

The main problems with PAL and NTSC compatibility stemmed from the analogue nature of the equipment. Digital signals are much easier to convert, and hence the probability of material being imported (particularly in the case of Europe where there are a large number of importers bringing in the latest US releases early) is much higher.

When true mass-market digital media began arriving, a lot of companies (especially US movie distributors) called for the DVD standard to be modified to include “region coding,” dividing the world into a series of numbered territories, with the target designation coded onto the disc. This number is also programmed into the player, and unless they match the player will refuse it. Similar systems have been used by video games manufacturers for years.

One interesting aspect of the DVD region-coding system is that whilst (predictably) the US is zone 1, and Europe is zone 2, Japan is also in zone 2. This was presumably due to technical limitations on the number of zones available, and the belief that the import market between Japan and Europe was small enough for this not to be a problem. Whatever the reasoning, the result is that while US fans are now locked out of Japanese DVDs, European fans can play them without any trouble (the differences between the PAL and NTSC systems are irrelevant, as it is the player which determines the output format, not the disc).

There is hope, however, for anyone wanting to import DVDs between regions – as has traditionally happened in the games console field, within days of new DVD players being released, unofficial modifications to change or remove the region coding appear from third parties and on the Internet. Often these modifications are as simple as pressing a special combination on the remote control, or flicking a switch inside the unit – many manufacturers admit off the record that releasing an easily-modifiable player boosts their sales, and as they usually have no interest in the “software” sales, is no loss to them.

Companies trying to divide and categorise sections of the globe can only be a bad thing for consumers, and it looks like the practice is here to stay. But as DVD takes off, anime fans will undoubtedly be among the frontline of those who make the extra effort to obtain and play discs from outside their region and society. We’ve never been the kind of people who enjoy being locked out of anything.

Ben Carter is a programmer and games designer.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Online Streaming: An Alternative Media

The most frequent methods of watching shows include TV broadcasting, movie theaters, and DVDs (or VHS tapes for much earlier). Recently, thanks to the Internet, we have another method for of getting access to professionally made shows though video streaming.

When it was first introduced, video streams were mostly illegally pirated and unofficial. But for residents of countries outside were certain shows originally aired, it was the only option.

Fansubs, videos translated and subtitled by fans, are usually the first and occasionally only format for foreign series currently airing to get to international audiences. Once the videos have been edited, they are uploaded to the Internet to be downloaded and eventually to video streaming sites like You Tube.

Over time, these fansubbers tried to be more conscious of and respectful of the license holders of the series they are sharing and make sure they give credit to them as well as encouraging purchasing official releases. Despite this, the owners would still try to get the videos taken down mainly to prevent local audiences from watching them.

More recently, some video streaming sites are trying to become more official and work with the creators. is one example of these sites for Japanese anime and dramas and financially support the industry with advertisements and paid subscriptions ranging from (US)$6.95 per month to (US)$4.99 per month depending on how much time purchased at once. I currently own a yearly prescription to a Cruchyroll premium anime account and feel proud that this is a way I can support the anime industry.

With systems like these official streaming sites, media industries are able to cheaply share their products internationally, requiring only translation and subtitling, and deliver shows that are either currently airing in their country or that they expect to not be popular enough for localizing distributors to pick them up.

This doesn't completely avoid regional lockout practices. Certain videos are unavailable to viewers in select regions by recognizing their IP addresses. It is still possible to get around this with proxy IP addresses, though.

Crunchy Roll

Monday, November 28, 2011

My Perspective on Lockout

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I'm a fan of games and shows from Japan. Though there is a decent industry for both of those in the US as well as other countries, I still find plenty that I would otherwise be missing out on.

Normally, without regional lockout, the only limit between countries sharing media is language, and anyone willing and able to put in the effort to learn their country of interest's language is able to experience these realizations of that culture.

The system does have its benefits, helping keep the market of international media profitable for example. However, whatever benefits to it that exist only support the industry. I would expect that all that would be necessary would be competent translators and possibly voice actors.

I believe that through current technology such as the Internet the world should become more connected. But systems like regional lockout only keep us isolated in our own countries with our only outside contact being these companies.

I like these industries and often support them when I can and as much as I can afford. Though I appreciate them for helping us experience these media, I know there are plenty that isn't being shared with other countries. This doesn't just include the recent, obscure products but also the older, classic ones that have either fallen out of relevance or their distributing companies have gone out of business.

I have noticed from my earlier research for this blog that regional lockout is loosening up with Blue-Ray having only 3 regions and current game consoles hardly using region codes at all. I appreciate this and hope it will eventually lead to regional lockout from being removed completely.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Lockout Bypasses

Though most are unaware of this system, and it does have some positive feature, some customers who are interested in importing foreign media will find regional lockout irritating. Here are a few examples of how to get around these locks. But some of these have consequences which can potentially be legal.

The first and most obvious possibility is to just use a system with the proper region codes such as a Region 2 DVD player for a Region 2 DVD. This method can be very expensive. The customer will, of course, have to by the additional player, which could potentially not fit their countries electrical outlets and standards. This as well as other complications might require adaptors to make the device usable.

Some DVD players are designed to be region-free and able to play DVDs from any region. Most players that aren't region-free will allow a user to change its region code after they have entered a special code with the remote or controller. These codes aren't often shared by the devices' manufacturers, and they will need to be found on certain sites that list them for specific players.

Another option is to use a device called a modification (or mod) chip which is manually installed into the player or game console. The mod chip works by intercepting or bypassing the system that checks the code on the disk and allows the device to play disks from any region. Since this requires customer to personally install the chip, it can possibly be improperly installed. This also circumvents the copy protection components of the system which can be illegal and void your system's warranty. Manufacturers also change their systems' physical design in newer models to try to prevent mod chips from installing properly.

Though most DVD drives in personal computers will change their internal codes when a different disk is inserted, they will lock to the last region code used after five changes. After that, the user will need to either install a new DVD drive or use an external drive that plugs into a USB or other port. Video playing software such as VLC are able play DVDs regardless of region though.

The disks themselves can be copied and burned to new disks. Certain sections of the disks are protected preventing them from being properly copied and playable. Some software and mod chips will allow official disks to be copied and copied disks to be playable. Then, when the disk is recreated, it can be written with a different region code. Since the consumer is reproducing copyrighted material, depending on what they do with it, they can get into legal trouble. The consumer does have limited permission to copy disks they have purchased, but only for to backup and archive and not to sell or distribute.

Software, called emulators, are able to imitate game consoles and are able to play ROMs of games released for those consoles. Emulators don't use region codes and are able to play any game converted to ROM form. Again, since this is reproducing both the games and the consoles that run them, the use and distribution of emulators can be illegal. Most of these are for much older consoles like NES and Super NES and are somewhat ignored. But emulators and ROMs for more recent consoles would not be appreciated. Use of emulators and ROMs should only be when both the console and games played are owned by the user.

For anyone who wants to get around regional lockout, these as well as others are methods that can bypass it. Many of them are illegal or unethical for a reason, and the consumer should keep in consideration the companies that make and distribute these products.


Friday, October 21, 2011

DVD Lockouts

Compared to video games, DVDs that play movies and TV shows are much more popular and because of this, they are much more sensitive when it comes to international sales and distribution. Games and consoles are only distributed in countries where sales are actually anticipated, such as North America, Japan, and Europe, but movies and TV are made and watched around the world and many that are popular enough in America are shown internationally.

Unlike video games which have 4 regions, DVDs are (currently) released in 6 regions:
1 U.S. , U.S. Territories, Canada, Bermuda
2 Europe, Middle East, Egypt, Japan, South Africa
3 Southeast Asia, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau
4 Mexico, Central America, Caribbean, South America, Australia, New Zealand
5 India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Russia, Ukraine, Africa (Non-Region 2), South Asia, North Korea
6 China

Other than these 6, there are other region codes used on DVDs. Region code 7 is currently reserved for future use. Region Code 8 is used for airlines and cruise ships. The unofficial “Region 0” is for region free disks. Since all region codes work as flags stored as “true” or “false” (or 1 or 0) instead of a specific value, it is possible for disks and players to support multiple regions at once. For example, “region 0” disks have flags 1 through 6 set as “1” so they’d be playable in all international regions.

There are many types of devices that can play DVDs or similar media, and most of them work in different ways regarding region coding. The standard player simply checks the DVD and compares it to its own internal code. Recent game consoles are able to also play DVDs and so use DVD region codes separate from their video game region codes. Most modern personal computers have built in DVD drives which are slightly flexible. DVD drives use an internal region code but are also able to change their code when a foreign disk is inserted, though it will only do this up to five times before it permanently locks to the last code used.

Blu-ray disks are far more lenient regarding region coding. Instead of the six (or eight) DVD regions, blu-ray uses only 3:
A North, Central, South America, Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea
B Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Greenland
C Central and South Asia

Even more lenient than this, most studios and distributing companies are releasing disks region free.

Closed Borders and Open Secrets

edit (10/27/2011):

Game Lockouts

As mentioned before, the NES and other games consoles as well as several DVD players use some sort of a region coding system. These systems could need to be listed for what is region locked or not.

Most early, cartridge based systems mainly used chips to prevent game from a different region from playing, but some others just used different cartridge shapes or connection pin sets (how the console communicates with or reads the cartridge). The earlier consoles, generations three through five, that were region locked were NES, Sega Master System, Super NES, and Playstation. Also among consoles from these generations, there were some with some form of lockout, but weren’t regionally locked to a degree. The Nintendo 64 used a lockout chip like the 10NES but only to play approved games and not for region codes. The Sega Saturn did use region codes, but most copies of games were playable on consoles from multiple regions.

The recent two generations are where regional lockout is most present. Of generation five, all of them are region locked: Sega Dreamcast, Nintendo Gamecube, Playstation 2, and Xbox. The latest, seventh, generation of console is slightly more lenient on region codes. The Nintendo Wii is completely region locked. The Xbox 360 is locked, but much of its game library isn’t restricted and playable in multiple regions. The Playstation 3 isn’t itself region locked, but backwards compatible models are locked for PS2 games. Four of these, Playstation 2, Playstation 3, Xbox, and Xbox 360, also play DVDs, so those are also locked by DVD regions (mentioned later).

Most handheld consoles, such as the various Game Boys and the Game Gear, weren’t region locked, but more recently newer systems are being locked. The Nintendo DS wasn’t originally locked, but the Nintendo DSi, DS games released after it, and the Nintendo 3DS are locked. The Playstation Portable is region locked but only for movies played on its Universal Media Disks (UMD) as according to DVD regions. When the Playstation Vita comes out, it will be region free and no longer supports UMDs.

The recent consoles and their games are released among 4 regions: Japan and Asia (NTSC-J), North America (NTSC U/C), Europe and Oceania (PAL, PAL/E), and China (NTSC-C).

Playstation Forums

edit (10/27/2011):

Friday, October 14, 2011

Regional Lockout Definition & History

Regional Lockout is a practice used by media distribution companies to control the sales of DVDs and games internationally. This is usually implemented through a chip or code in the player or console that checks the disk or cartridge for a specific code will refuse to play it if the code doesn't match.

The first system to use a lockout system was the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The NES used a chip called 10NES to not only prevent it from playing games released on the Japanese Famicom, but also enforced only allowing games approved by Nintendo to be playable. Though some people found ways of getting around the chip or copying it. Most cartridge-based systems that used a lockout system used chips much like this. Disk-based consoles and DVD players have region codes written on the individual disks.

The various purposes of using region coding include price control, content control, and scheduled releases. Because different countries have different economies, not everyone is as willing to pay the same as anywhere else. So countries that are generally poorer or have a lesser interest in these forms of media sell them at a lower price, but if these weren't region coded, someone could import them cheap. Different countries also have differences in what's appropriate and rate them differently. Region coding ensures that in a more strict country, such as Australia, certain media is only available in an edited form or not at all to avoid legal problems.

Region coding, in summary, is used to prevent certain inappropriate content from being distributed where it is unwelcome and can make sure the companies are able to make a profit.

Closed Borders and Open Secrets
The Infamous Lockout Chip

edit (10/27/2011):

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Media Without Borders: Introduction

For most people that collect DVDs and games, they mainly collect ones released domestically or within their country. These collectors are unaware of a system that is used in these disks and the systems that run them. Though, anyone who is interested in foreign DVDs and games would have trouble with this system called "regional lockout".

Regional lockout is the system used by distributors of DVDs and games to control sales in other countries or regions. This system uses codes written on the individual disks and the players and consoles that run them. If a code on a disk doesn't correspond with a player, the player will refuse to play them and force them to be incompatible.

Regional lockout primarily benefits the distributors and publishers of these media regarding international sales as well as protecting them regarding different countries customs and laws. For those who do want to collect foreign DVDs and games or at least ones that just aren't available in their region, this system can be very aggravating and potentially expensive.

I'm particularly interested in Japan, its culture, and its media mostly anime and games. Because of this, I'm personally interested in the topic of regional lockout, but the main source I find on it is Wikipedia (whose own references are different articles on specific game consoles) or random forum posts. I intend to use this blog to be informative about it explaining some of the virtues and faults of the system. I admit that I am personally biased against regional lockout and wish that it would be abolished or removed in future releases of players and game consoles. But for the more informative sections, I intend to keep a balanced perspective explaining the topic.