VHS, DVD, Blu-ray: how Hollywood tried to crack down on piracy

Disc with a pirate flag on it
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Hollywood has always struggled to draw the line between piracy protection and inconveniencing end users – and nowhere is that more evident than home media.

Film studios create entertainment for profit but they also want to control how you watch and in recent times, where you watch it too. Before the VHS revolution, if you wanted to watch a film you enjoyed at the cinema, you had limited options. One was to wait until it received an airing on a television network. In some cases, officially licensed 8mm films were sold. For example, you could purchase the original Star Wars albeit an edited eight-minute version.


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Then in 1975, JVC (Victor Company of Japan) created the VHS cassette. Whilst Sony had already released Betamax as a rival videotape option, we all know the outcome of that format war. Even so, Sony didn’t admit defeat until 1988 and blank tapes were still sold until 2016.

This opened up a new revenue for Hollywood studios, films could be sold to the public on pre-recorded VHS and Betamax cassettes.

The first pre-recorded VHS cassettes sold in the US were The Sound Of Music, Patton and M*A*S*H. 20th Century Fox was in dire financial problems in 1977 (before Star Wars) and a company called Magnetic Video took advantage to license 50 films to sell on cassette.

This new format came at a steep price as most new technology does. The film cassettes themselves cost anywhere between $50-$70 apiece. VHS players were strictly for the rich, remembering this is the 1970s, they sold anywhere between $1000 and $1500.

Therefore, I think it’s safe to assume that piracy wasn’t too much of an issue at the beginning. But as with all technology, as time passes, it becomes cheaper and more mass market. Just ten years later in 1987, the home video hardware market in the US alone was worth $5.25 billion (of which 90% was the VHS format).

Cheap blank tapes meant that people could record films from television broadcasts. This infuriated Universal Studios who tried to take Sony to court over this even being an option. Why? Because they saw Sony as the creator of the format as it had developed the Betamax technology and JVC essentially created a cheaper version in VHS.

The court decided that people were using their VHS machines as intended and ruled in favour of Sony. We were all still allowed to record films off the telly, but only because of a court ruling.

The bigger problem facing the film industry would be piracy of retail cassettes, allowing people to purchase new films at cheaper prices or just copying films themselves by linking two VHS machines together especially as blank tapes were so cheap. Copy protection was required, and it didn’t take long.

VHS tapes

Enter Macrovision (aka Analogue Protection System) by the Macrovision Solutions Corporation (now known as Tivo). This technology, in the simplest terms, implemented an extra pulse signal on to commercially released tapes starting in 1984.

If the Macrovision-enabled tape was played in a VHS machine as normal, this extra pulse information is disregarded by the television. However, in trying to pirate the tape, the recording VHS machine picks up this pulse with its automatic gain control circuitry which severely disrupts the signal.

The resulting copy displays vast changes in brightness levels and the picture will lose vertical hold and roll up the screen, rendering it unwatchable.

The same technology is also used on DVDs as well. The Macrovision protection informs the DVD player to apply this extra pulse information to its analogue outputs which are most commonly used in connections to a VHS machine.

But as with any piracy, devices were created and sold on the grey market that could be placed between the link of two VHS machines that would strip out this anti-piracy pulse information. Secondly, a limited number of VHS players didn’t have the automatic gain circuitry, effectively rendering Macrovision useless on those machines.

Interestingly, at the time, 1980s US and Canada treated VHS piracy very differently. In the mid-eighties, Canadian courts said that VHS piracy contravened copyright laws, but it wasn’t a criminal offence. Therefore, a person could only be charged under the then antiquated Copyright Act of 1924. All they could do was charge $10 per illegal copy. By contrast, U.S. law could punish pirates with fines of up to $250,000 and five years in jail. You might have spotted the FBI warning that adorns the front of some home releases.

In 1995, the next home format was revealed, digital versatile disc or DVD for short. As already mentioned, DVDs already had Macrovision and several other built in copy protection methods for retail films.

DVD technology was released to the public the following year in 1996 including the first DVD drives for PC computers. DVD-R drives that could burn data to blank DVDs followed on shortly afterwards. Obviously, people tried to see if they could somehow copy DVDs using their PCs.

Whilst their computers could see the data on the disc, they would not be able to copy it: the operating system would refuse or give an error. This was the result of CSS or Content Scramble System which was used to encrypt the DVD’s contents.

The CSS system was successful for three years and then in 1999, it was defeated by three people, one of which one was a Norwegian programmer, Jon Lech Johansen. This hack wasn’t the result of someone interested in pirating the films either.

Johansen wanted to watch DVDs on his Linux based computer but the software for DVD playback didn’t exist. With the help of two others, who still remain anonymous to this day, they defeated the CSS encryption and created a program called DeCSS. This allowed people to read the DVD files or even copy the contents of a DVD onto a hard drive in a process normally referred to as ‘ripping’.

When the Norwegian police were informed, they weren’t too impressed and raided Johansen’s house the following year but the charges were eventually dropped by 2004.

As this was now the age of the internet, the source code to DeCSS was eventually leaked and the web was awash with different software programs helping users to ‘rip’ DVD films. To ensure the code was freely widespread, you could even buy T-shirts which featured the original coding to DeCSS printed upon them.

Another protection system used on DVDs was designed to stop people watching films they’ve imported, this was known as Region Encoding. Some of you at the back still shudder at its name – and it’s still about today.

DVD Blu-ray

Whilst back in the VHS days there was no problem with you importing tapes if you really wanted, due to the different television systems used in the UK and US, it would require expensive viewing equipment. It wasn’t an issue for the Hollywood studios to worry about.

When the DVD format came onto the market, televisions started to become multiformat. UK televisions would be able to handle the US television format being played from a US DVD for example.

Therefore, it was theatrically possible to import films and television shows on DVD from other countries, in some cases allowing you to watch films that hadn’t even been released in your home country.

Hollywood wanted control over this and from the start of the DVD format, Region Coding was implemented. A system that ensured that you could only watch a DVD from the country you bought your DVD player from.

With Region Encoding, the world was divided into six geographical regions: for example Region 1 was the United States and Region 2 was used for Europe. There are eight regions in total, but the last two are used for technical reasons, for example Region 8 is for use on cruise ships and airplanes.

Trying to play a Region 1 DVD in a Region 2 DVD player would simply bring up an onscreen error message informing you the disc would not play.

As with most technical restrictions, this was overcome in various ways. In the beginning, extra hardware modifications to connect to the DVD players internals via wires and soldering known as ‘mod chips’ became available. For the faint of heart, DVD players were also sold with this option already included.

For the true DVD and film lover, this bypassed the region encoding scheme used in DVD players, although it was fairly costly in the beginning adding a significant cost to a player that already retailed at several hundred pounds.

As with all technology, as time passes it becomes cheaper. DVD players prices dropped to the £100 mark by the end of 2000. Also, as these newer cheaper DVD players from the smaller tech companies arrived, it was discovered that many came with an added secret bonus.

By pointing the remote at the DVD player and entering a certain combination of buttons, the DVD player could be made region free, or at least enable you to choose which region the machine was set to.

One example was the Wharfdale 750s exclusively sold by the supermarket Tesco for approximately £150 in the UK, in 1999. Not only was this a ridiculously cheap price for a DVD player at this time, but it was also discovered that it had the region coding removal trick, available via the included remote. This was an absolute bargain and DVD discussion boards lit up as AV enthusiasts at the time were scouring the stores to grab one for themselves. You really had to be there: it was quite a moment for DVD in the UK.

Furthermore, you could search the internet to discover which models of DVD player had this hack. Websites were created with databases of DVD machines and the tricks required to make the unit region free. Even if you didn’t have internet access, some specialist stores, such as Richer Sounds, printed the specific region hack for the model you just bought and included a copy inside the box.

The Region Coding bypass allowed film lovers to pick up films early. For example, the US DVD of The Matrix was released just three months after the UK theatrical release. I’m sure in a few select instances, you could’ve walked out of the UK cinema, gone home and ordered the US DVD straight away.

Hollywood wasn’t impressed and tried to clamp down on this practice but its options were limited. A new upgraded system was introduced known as Region Coding Enhanced.

Region Coding Enhanced was an attempt to stop DVDs being played on multiregion-enabled machines. In essence, the disc would try to check if the player could play any other regions as well as the one stated on the DVD. If the check was true, the disc wouldn’t play.

However, due to the different methods in which this check was implemented across multiple DVD players, this technique wasn’t very effective. It was also reported that some genuine non-hacked DVD players couldn’t play the discs either. Region Coding Enhanced was dropped quickly and it was only ever used on a few releases such as Sony’s Hollow Man from 2000.

It’s worth noting too that bypassing regional coding was entirely legal.

DVD images

Film studios also tried other techniques in controlling how they earned an income from the DVD market. In 1998, a hybrid form of DVD emerged in the United States, it was known as DIVX.  A normal DVD film that had been encoded with Digital Rights Management and could only be played on DIVX DVD players.

The only difference to the DVD format was your DIVX player had to be connected via a phone line. When you picked up a film from the store, it came at a low cost of $4.50 to own but you had 48 hours to watch it after you first pressed play.

When you wanted to watch the film again after that time period, that incurred another fee charged to your account registered via the phone line to the DIVX service.

If you really liked the disc, you could upgrade to a silver service gaining unlimited plays, for a higher fee. A gold upgrade was initially mentioned on launch of the service with unlimited plays on any DIVX machine, but no titles were ever released in this way.

Understandably, the DIVX format was ridiculed upon launch by the DVD community and the service lasted just one year before it was officially discontinued. The service was phased out over the following two years and when the service was finally turned off. It rendered the format obsolete as the discs were now completely unplayable.

A similar technique of sorts, known as Flexplay, was trialled by Disney and renamed to Ez-D in 2003. The discs played in normal DVD players but the physical layers of the discs were glued together with a clear resin that reacted to oxygen.

Once the disc was removed from its air tight packaging, there was just 48 hours to watch the film before the resin turned black or dark red, again making the disc unreadable.

Disney released such films as Pirates Of The Caribbean: Curse Of The Black Pearl and Bridget Jones Diary this way. However, consumers didn’t’ show enough interest and as these were still normal DVDs, they could still be pirated like any other disc.

Another drawback was that even when sealed in the packaging, an Ez-D disc only had a shelf life of a year before the resin reacted regardless of its packaging. Because of these issues, Disney and other interested studios didn’t pursue the format any further.

By 2006, film enthusiasts had a new format to buy all their films on: HD-DVDs or Blu-ray. Both had their own pros and cons but two years later, Blu-ray had won the majority of the studio support and therefore HD-DVD was left behind.

Blu-ray still uses region protection (interestingly, HD-DVD never had any) but a much more simplified version into where the world has been divided into just three geographical areas, A, B or C. For whatever reason, not all studios are so strict on the protection like in the DVD era. Warner Bros discs are well known for not including any region protection at all.

Once again, just like with DVDs there are tricks and tech you can use to bypass these checks on both dedicated Blu-ray machines and PCs.

Finally, for those of us who are still purchasing physical media, we have our favourite films on 4K Blu-ray discs and one of the best aspects of all, apart from the amazing picture and sound clarity, is that they no longer use any region protection at all.

For now, region protection has become virtual. A case of what films are available depending on which streaming service you use and where you watch it from.

Images: BigStock

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