Fighting ‘The Man’ – International Film Edition

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 Playing Video_TS File

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?

Mac The Ripper In Action

Mac The Rip­per is an easy way to cre­ate back-ups of your DVDs

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.

Sony DRX-700UL Burner

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.

  1. 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. []
  2. Win­ner of ‘most non­sen­si­cal icon of the year.’ []
  3. A pro­gram which deserves ‘worst icon of the year’ award. Also, you’re total­ly on your own using this one. []
  4. 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. []
  5. 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. []