Ever since I decided that purchasing a DVD of “Monarch of the Glen” at the BBC store at the BBC Television Centre just outside of London would be a good idea, I’ve been haunted with how to watch my legitimately purchased television show. Angela and I have purchased a number of other DVD from Amazon.co.uk since and we’ve enjoyed getting to watch these shows instead of waiting to see if they’ll ever make it to this side of the Atlantic1.
VLC Player can play Video_TS files from a ripped DVD, allowing you to check the file back-up was done right before burning a physical back-up disc. Here’s a scene from the second season of Monarch of the Glen.
First, some background on why all this is such a pain. Video formats differ between the US and Europe (and much of the rest of the world, for that matter). There are three different signal types: NTSC, PAL, and SECAM. Here in the us, we use NTSC and in the UK, it’s PAL (SECAM is French and not quite as common). The short version of this issue is the different signal rates, resolution, and encoding result in a PAL signal on a NTSC monitor as a black & white “rolling” picture (sound may or may not be affected). It’s like Andy Kauffman got a hold of your DVD player and finds the joke much funnier than you do.
The other issue, as it pertains to DVDs, is the “Region Code.” As film studios get some sort of demented kick out of releasing films at different times around the world (or just not releasing them at all), the region code prevents discs made for one global region being played in another. There are some players which are made “region free” (or, more often, can be hacked to that setting) but most are not. DVDs in the UK are Region 2 where as the U.S. market is Region 1. Thus, we own several DVDs that won’t load on our DVD player and even if they did, wouldn’t be watchable.
All this, despite the fact that we legally bought them.
Trying To Be A Good Guy
I first learned about Channel 4’s The IT Crowd from a post Cory Doctorow made on BoingBoing. It was great that the studio was going to post the videos online to watch, but it sucked that only UK residents could watch them (your IP tells others where you are surfing from). I was able to download copies of the show via BitTorrent and so that’s how I first watched them. I really enjoyed the show a lot and felt it would be fair to pay them for making such a great little comedy. Therefore, I purchased the first season of the show from Amazon.co.uk (similar to how I first got into Lost, by the way).
Now, having purchased the The IT Crowd in addition to having purchased all seven seasons of Monarch of the Glen, we have a fairly good collection of Region 2 discs. Up until recently, we had a hacked Philips DVD player that was able to play them without trouble. Unfortunately, that player gave out prematurely and we had no intention of replacing with an equally cheap one (only rich men can afford to buy cheap things, as they must buy them over and over; or so the saying goes). That meant we’d have to make Region 1 back-ups of our DVDs, though.
No problem, right? You just copy them like any other files on a computer, right? No, it doesn’t quite work that way. You’re thinking like a criminal, says Hollywood.
So We Have To Break The Law?
It is illegal to make a copy of a DVD as this requires “breaking” the Content Scrambling System (CSS) on the disc. However, that being said, there are a number of commercial and open source applications which will rip a DVD. There are some really great ones for the mac. Handbrake2 is a great piece of software for stripping out the video on a DVD and creating a single, portable file. However, it does not create an exact copy of the disc. MacTheRipper3, on the other hand, can extract the entire contents of a disc, menus and all, onto a computer’s hard disc. Both are handy applications, depending on what format you want your video in. We use Handbrake to create compact copies of a movie or shows to store on Angela’s laptop when traveling. This saves on space as well as battery life. I would like to point out that while we do rip Netflix rentals, we delete them after watching them (storage is far more precious on her iBook than the time it takes to re-rent a movie).
However, for my need to watch a Region 2 PAL disc on my Region 1 NTSC DVD player, I need Mac The Ripper. It’s a fairly dummy-proof piece of software: insert the disc, select a directory to store the files in, accept the default settings, and click “Go.” However, you must have a drive that will allow you to load discs from different regions. Usually, that’s not a problem as it’s the Operating System that restricts the Region setting. However, on a lot of Intel macs, such as my iMac, the drive has the region in the firmware. Firmware that, at least as of yet, isn’t user hackable. Mac The Ripper doesn’t appear to be able to do anything with it.
If only I had a drive that didn’t care what Region the disc was…
Two Options, Neither Perfect
The first option was to reset the DVD Region on Angela’s iBook and use it to rip the discs, storing them via the network on my iMac’s hard drive. This worked well enough, but what if Angela wanted to watch a different DVD? We can only change the Region four more times, one of which kind of has to be back to Region 1. She’d not be too happy with me if I more-or-less broke the DVD playing functionality of her laptop. Sure, we rip a lot of stuff, but still; we’d both like it to function normally in case we’d like to just watch a movie.4
The second option was to find an external DVD drive (or burner, as external DVD-ROMs are all in museums now). Those are usually somewhat costly, but I lucked out and found a Sony DRX-700UL Dual Layer DVD burner on eBay for under $50. I was excited that it was FireWire 400 and USB 2.0 but unfortunately it’s a Windows-only device and for some odd reason only works with OS X on my iMac via USB, but not FireWire. Oh well, I have more free USB ports than FireWire anyway. Otherwise, this solution has worked flawlessly. Mac The Ripper is able to copy over the files from a 7.8 GB DVD in about 20 minutes. I use Toast 8 to select the Video_TS directory5 on the internal SuperDrive.
A Sony Dual Layer burner I was able to purchase for fairly cheap on eBay allows me to rip DVDs from Regions other than Region 1 onto my hard drive for creating back-ups.
I’m not thrilled that I had to spend $50 for an external drive (which clutters up the desk I’ve tried so hard to unclutter) not to mention about $2.50 per DL disc. Given that I have about 25 Region 2 discs to make back-ups of, this is about a $110 endeavor. All just to watch movies that I purchased legally!
Now, one final note on all this. I’m not suggesting nor am I condoning making copies for giving away or selling to anyone. I simply want to be able to watch the media that I’ve legally purchased in my own home and I believe you should be able to do the same. There are any number of reasons why someone would legitimately want to watch a foreign DVD (school research, learning a language, fan of foreign films, immigrants looking for a taste of the old country, etc.). Whatever dumb reasons that Hollywood, the MPAA, and others have come up with to try and prevent “piracy” seem only to have served to frustrate and demonize consumers. It’s unfortunate, but I have no intention of letting it stop us from enjoying the shows and films we love.
- Further, since we rarely watched some of the boutique channels anyway, we’ve long-since canceled our cable package which included BBC America. That channel is sorely missed (The Office, anyone?), but for the price we paid we could purchase or rent cheaper. [↩]
- Winner of ‘most nonsensical icon of the year.’ [↩]
- A program which deserves ‘worst icon of the year’ award. Also, you’re totally on your own using this one. [↩]
- Of course, I could just change the Region on my iMac, but we do watch a lot of movies on this machine now. Front Row is really awesome and frankly, our house is freakin’ cold downstairs in February. [↩]
- This is the file structure for a DVD movie. Incidentally, you can play Video_TS directories off of your hard drive with VLC, allowing you to check the files before burning them to DVD. Dual Layer discs aren’t cheap. [↩]