Why Is Anime Still Region Locked?

by Justin Sevakis,

José asked:

Regional lockout has always rustled my jimmies. Living in Western Europe, I am able to import Japanese DVDs (since oddly, our regions were the same) but ever since Blu-Ray came out, importing effectively became cordoned-off to me (America had the opposite happen to them). Video games have abolished the practice for more than a decade (even though Nintendo only fully did so very recently) and they've suffered nothing for it, so why is it still enforced on the home video side of things, especially when they are a lot easier to pirate? Wouldn't it make more sense to just make stuff as easy as possible to buy?

There's no question that region-based lockout is not good for the consumer. It artificially limits your ability to enjoy media that YOU bought. If you travel a lot, need subtitles or dubs in a language other than the one sold in your country, or live in a country where the media you bought isn't available, region codes are probably in your way a lot.

Region codes were, and still are, deemed necessary because, unlike with video games, different companies control the rights to movies and TV shows in different parts of the world. Obviously you have different publishers in different places (I.e. Funimation in the US and Canada; Manga Entertainment in the UK, Kazé in France and Germany, Yamato Video in Italy, etc.). But often the licensors that each of those parts of the world have to work with aren't even the same. With a Japanese production committee, it's not uncommon for different companies in the committee to handle distribution in different parts of the world -- I.e., one company would become the licensor to Europe and Africa, while another would handle the English speaking parts of the world. Even within the same corporations, these different territories are usually handled by different licensing offices.

Being able to sell the rights to a film or TV show in different territories is an important way that shows make their budgets back. Pre-selling distribution rights to different distributors in different parts of the world are very often how productions get financed in the first place. It's important to protect those business partners -- if physical media were able to freely cross borders, distributors would constantly be competing to sell the same shows, and very likely wouldn't make much money doing so. They would lose their incentive to spend money on marketing, and many would opt to spend as little effort on the disc as possible in order to release it as cheaply as possible, devaluing the product. This isn't just theoretical: in the early days of DVD, many companies released tons of the same public domain films and cartoons on DVD. All of these discs were low-priced and nearly all of them looked pretty terrible. Even without any royalties to pay, the business model proved unsustainable.

At any rate, that's why it's important to protect each publisher's exclusivity for a given show in their territory. Whenever new technology is invented with professionally made movies and TV shows in mind, much effort is made to protect those businesses, and that means barriers between different teritories. Since the major Hollywood studios play an outsized role in the development and approval of new technology, their concerns and business practices get the most consideration.

There were other considerations too. When DVD came out, everyone still used analog TVs, and those TVs could either play NTSC (30 frames per second, 525 lines of resolution) or PAL/SECAM (25 frames per second, 625 lines of resolution) format video, but not both. Areas like Europe and Japan could share a single region code, because Japan used NTSC and Europe used PAL -- creating an extra barrier to compatibility.

Region codes were also a weak attempt to prevent wanton piracy. Countries that are (or were) hotbeds of physical media piracy, like China, were grouped off into their own region codes, where local bootlegs would only affect the local market. (Of course, this did nothing, as a disc's region setting was easily altered when the bootlegs were made. Most pirate discs are "Region 0", playable worldwide.)

With DVDs, there are eight region codes (only 1-6 are used). The region coding is stored in the metadata area of a disc, and is a simple "allowed" or "not allowed" switch for each region.

  • Region 1: US and its territories, Canada and Bermuda
  • Region 2: Japan, Europe, South Africa and the Middle East
  • Region 3: Most of East and Southeast Asia (except China and Japan)
  • Region 4: Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands, The Carribean, and Central and South America
  • Region 5: Eastern Europe, Russia, Baltic states, Central and South Asia, India, Africa, North Korea and Mongolia
  • Region 6: China

By the time Blu-ray came along, everyone had seen how region coding had worked (or not worked) with DVD. TV manufacturers were pushing for 24-frame 1080p to be a worldwide standard, and major studios were eager to simplify the number of regions. Distribution in areas of the world with lots of smaller countries was starting to consolidate, and the major studios were less concerned about discs crossing in some parts of the world than others.

Ultimately, Blu-ray only got three region codes. In order to improve on how easily DVD region codes were worked around, Blu-rays don't store the region information in metadata. Instead, the logical programming of the disc asks the player what ITS region code is, and can basically do anything in response to an incorrect answer. Most discs jump to a lock-out screen.

  • Region A: North America, Central America, South America, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia
  • Region B: Europe, Greenland, French territories, Middle East, Africa, Australia and New Zealand
  • Region C: India, Nepal, China, Russia, Central and South Asia

Now, of course, North America and Japan share a region code, and that creates endless headaches for Japanese producers. Japanese fans importing cheaper American Blu-rays ("reverse importing") was such a huge concern for anime producers that some of them nearly stopped allowing Blu-ray releases in North America. Luckily, another method of programming the discs was discovered that allowed them to lock out individual countries, not just an entire third of the Earth.

I don't expect any fans to like region codes or care about any of this. None of these things are any of their concern, and the end result is a disc that, despite the fact that they own it, can't be played in a significant part of the world. That's a bummer. While the world is getting smaller, showbiz is still stuck chopping up the world into chunks in order to make its business work. It's a bit of an anachronism, but I don't expect that to change for a very long time. It's what we're stuck with, and there's not much point in complaining.

In the mean time, if you're a serious media hoarder like myself, I'm a big proponent of region-free Blu-ray players. While they will cost you a little more than a standard Blu-ray player, if you're serious about importing discs from other countries they're a solid investment. And there are always at least a handful of releases you can't get in your country, making owning a region free player your only option.

Thank you for reading Answerman!

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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