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Regional lockout

From Sega Retro

Regional lockout as seen on a Sega Mega Drive/Genesis when attempting to load an NTSC game in a PAL system.

Regional lockout is the programming practice, code, chip, or physical barrier used to prevent the playing of media designed for a device from the country where it is marketed on the version of the same device marketed in another country.

Examples

Video Games

  • In the video game industry, Nintendo was the originator of regional lockout for video games. Regional lockout in video games is when a piece of hardware is designed such that only software for that region is compatible. Most video games have region encoding.

The main regions are:

  • Asia (NTSC-J).
  • North America and NTSC territories (NTSC U/C).
  • Europe, Australia and PAL/SECAM territories.

The Game Boy Advance, the original Nintendo DS, and the Nintendo DS Lite do not have regional lockout; because of this, import games can be played on those systems. In other words, a Japanese game would work on an American unit, although the game would likely not be in the user's native language and might be different from the product as released in other countries. Many "hardcore gamers" import games, usually from Japan or North America, if the game is released much earlier in that country than in their own, or for other reasons.

The PSP does have partial regional lockout, and uses the same regions as DVD. As of February 2006, the lockout is only used for UMD movies and not for games, although Sony has hinted it is up to the developers if they want to include region protection in their games. As of February 2007, copies of Battlezone for the PSP that are released in certain countries are found to be region protected, however it is unknown if there are other region-protected PSP games in the market.

The sixth generation of video game consoles have regional lockout, so games imported from other countries cannot be played on foreign versions of those consoles without some form of alteration to bypass the lockout.

DVDs

  • DVD Video discs are the most visible example of regional lockout. Computer DVD drives come from the factory with RPC (Regional Playback Control), either RPC-1 (older drives) or RPC-2 (newer drives). The difference between the two is that RPC-1 means the player software has the responsibility of enforcing the region control, while in RPC-2, it is enforced by the drive's firmware.

It means that RPC-1 drives can play DVDs from any region (0-8) while RPC-2 drives play only from a particular region (although the region code can be changed 5 times after which the code is locked.).

Technical design

Regional lockout usually requires hardware manufactured by someone who can be trusted to support the methods chosen. For example, manufacturers need a license to produce DVD players, and game consoles are generally produced by only one company per console. The hardware is typically instructed to play only media designated for a particular region, and that region is then encoded onto the media.

For instance, a Japanese GameCube game disc is encoded with a marking NTSC-J (NTSC Japan), and GameCube consoles from Japan are programmed to only play games with that marking, not PAL or NTSC-M (NTSC US/Canada) game discs.

Legal design

In addition to technical measures, regional lockout schemes are generally supported by legal measures. For example, the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has a clause that covers "circumventing a scheme used to restrict access to copyrighted material" that may be used to prosecute people who ignore, circumvent, or crack a regional lockout scheme.

Often such regional restrictions are in conflict with national law, for instance in regions such as Hong Kong, where parallel import is expressly allowed and supported by government bodies. Also, the High Court of Australia has recently concluded that modification of devices to circumvent region lockout is allowed under Australian law[1].

It also violates the international copyright treaty [2], Article 4[3], which equates electronic media with that of other literary works such as books, with the copy owner having the right to buy, read, and sell the material anywhere in the world, as well as Article 10 [4], which prohibits the introduction of national legislation that limits copy owners normal use.

Advantages for producers

  • Allows items to be launched at different times in different places, without allowing people to obtain the item 'ahead of time' by purchasing from abroad.
  • Allows price differentiation between markets (localisation), thus increasing the potential revenue from worldwide sales and/or making products affordable in markets not tolerating the prices of other regions.
  • When distribution contracts for each area are awarded to different companies, it allows a company to avoid "stepping on someone else's toes".

Criticisms

  • It prevents (or complicates) legitimate enjoyment of a product that has been legally obtained in a different territory, e.g. DVDs purchased by tourists, given/sent as gifts or brought by immigrants.
  • Regional lockout promotes copyright infringement, software cracking, and modding, as it makes the 'official' version of a product less desirable due to the restrictions placed on it (as in the above case of a user relocating to another region).
  • It allows items to be launched at different times in different places, so eager customers in some countries must wait for the items to be sold locally instead of importing them sooner.
  • Thousands of titles are only ever released to a single territory and, when region-locked, become effectively unavailable to most other consumers in perpetuity, with little or no benefit even to the media producers.
  • It allows price-discrimination, which may be illegal in some countries.
  • It presents a barrier to free trade, which may be illegal in some areas such as the European Union. Since the accession of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia there are two regions in the European Union, restricting trade in the bloc. This state of affairs has yet to be challenged in court.
  • Works may not be able to be enjoyed in their original language and/or format due to product localisation (e.g., dubbing, censorship).
  • Localisation may be less than satisfactory for the work.
  • Works may be released with different features in different regions, making these inaccessible for some region users. For example, DVD releases are very often released earlier and with more special features in Region 1 (US and Canada) than in Region 4 (Latin America, Australia).