Dear Lifehacker, I've always wondered why Blu-rays have region coding, or why a music service is available in one country but not another. The Internet is global, right? And why are videos that stream in one country blocked in another? Is there any rhyme or reason, or is it all just to be annoying? Thanks, Blocked Out
Dear Blocked Out,
It's definitely annoying when a TV show you want to see streams for free in its home country but you can't watch it where you are. Music and movies are even worse — music services that are owned by global companies are often restricted to a few countries. And don't get us started on staggering Blu-ray releases by region.
Well, actually yes, let's get started on it. There's method behind all of that madness, but none of it has any of your best interests as a viewer in mind. It's largely about money and how that money is made. Let's dive in.
Rights, Licensing And Royalties
When a new music service launches and everyone's talking about it, it can be frustrating to try to sign up only to find out it's not available in your country. Google Play Music was US-only for a long time, Spotify was Europe-only for years, and the newly launched Beats Music is currently US-only. So why do music services launch in one country or region, and then slowly spread out across others? The short answer is licensing and royalties.
Before a major music service can launch, it needs to get licensing agreements with the big three music labels: Warner Music Group (WMG), Universal Music Group (UMG), and Sony Music Entertainment (SME). All three need to be on board for the music service to be competitive. The agreements make sure their music can be played, they collect the fees that keep the labels in business, and (hopefully) artists get royalties.
The trouble is, a licensing agreement with labels in the US doesn't mean much to the same label in a different region or country. Those deals were often signed decades ago but remain in force. That means that for a US-only service to launch in Australia, the company needs to sit down with the Australian execs from that same label and ink a new deal. That's the biggest reason why music services tend to launch in one region before another, as opposed to going global all at once.
Depending on how much they have to spend, smaller companies will stick to their own home markets. The smallest companies and startups get around the issue entirely and make themselves catalogues, search engines, or portals for music hosted elsewhere, the way Bop.fm pulls from YouTube, Spotify and Rdio, for example, or the way that Solayo pulls from Soundcloud, YouTube and other sources..
Advertising And Localisation
Video services face many of the same challenges, plus some others. Existing licensing deals with local networks is the reason why Netflix and Hulu don't exist in Australia yet.
Some of that comes down to paying the necessary fees and residuals to studios, actors and crew, but the larger issue is advertising and localisation. Streaming video services have to line up local advertisers willing to support their programming, and they also have to battle with the demand for localised content — English language dramas need to be subtitled before broadcast, or dubbed altogether depending on the demands of the studio that produced it and the overseas rights-holder. Both parties play a hand in when their content can be made available on the internet, and it only takes one of them to sink a deal.
With movies, there's another barrier: Staggered film releases. A blockbuster that hit theatres in the US and is now available to stream on Netflix may not appear on Netflix in the UK, for example, because the film has only just arrived in theatres there, As well, licensing agreements with streaming video sources are usually for a fixed period, which means content that's available now isn't guaranteed to be available in the future.
As for YouTube and other user-distributed streaming media, licensing is king. Video owners may only have rights to use the music in a video in a few countries, or perhaps they're only producing for a specific audience. Maybe they want to monetise their video, and have to localise it for advertising. In any event, YouTube uploaders have the option to select where their video will be available when they upload the video.
Hype And Piracy: Why Regions Still Exist
Regional lockout is a method of preventing media — whether it's video games, movies, or even devices like smartphones and game consoles — from being used in a specific part of the world. For most people, that's just annoying, but for the companies that produce and distribute media, it's a tool that allows them to control releases, stagger availability, localise their movies and TV shows, battle piracy, and (perhaps above all) drive up prices in as many markets as possible for as long as possible.
Here's the problem: region codes don't really work for any of those things anymore, and region-locking serves more as a nuisance to jump over for most consumers. Region locking doesn't stop piracy, and it doesn't give labels and studios an advantage or opportunity to build hype in one region while they localise their content there while it's already out to rave reviews in another. Still, labels, studios and publishers stick to it.
Originally, region locking DVDs and games was all about localisation and prices. Producers would already stagger movie premieres by region in order to dub or subtitle programming (and because doing that work in advance and simultaneously launching a film, console or game in all regions at once is expensive), and that meant staggering disc releases as well. Producers also didn't want someone in one place getting their hands on a DVD of a movie and then selling it to a friend overseas for whom the same movie hadn't even launched yet. The same rules applied to games, specifically PC games and consoles. The trouble today is that region locking, on DVD and Blu-ray players, game consoles and media, are all easily circumvented.
How To Defeat All This Nonsense
Our goal here is to explain the motivation behind this, not to defend it, or even imply it's effective. In short, the real reason producers stick to region locking and location-restrictions is money: Advertising, sponsorships, royalties, licensing fees, and in some cases, in order to serve their own home market while specifically excluding others.
Even so, most people agree that both forms of rights management are annoyances that are antiquated, and only serve to drive up prices and make the most possible money. Region locking is defeated by ripping discs and using good media players, or by buying all-region disc players. Location-restricted streaming services are easily overcome by simple proxies specifically built for the purpose, or by a VPN with multiple exit servers so you can appear to be in any country you want.
We hope you understand of where these policies and technologies came from, even if all we can do is hope that they go away soon. With that understanding comes the option to support producers that don't play along with these types of media rackets. Vote with your dollars and your bandwidth, and with luck producers who are relying on this system will realise consumers are wise to the scheme.
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