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Chinese DVD player evades security -- and it doesn't even need a hack

Wednesday, Mar 1 2000

Chinese DVD player evades security --and it doesn’t even need a hack

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has been busily shutting down Web sites -- and instigating charges against a Norwegian teen -- to stop hackers from publishing the code that would enable people to make digital copies of DVD movies, or play copies bought outside the U.S. market. But a Chinese company whose U.S. name is Apex is making it so consumers can tell the MPAA where to stick it. Apex (its Chinese name is Visual Disc and Digital Video Corporation) manufactures a low-cost DVD player for the world market, called the Apex AD-600A, which recently sold at Circuit City stores in L.A. for $149 to $179. The player includes a so-called ”Loopholes“ menu that allows the user to shut off the special feature, called Macrovision, that DVD manufacturers include to prevent copying a DVD to VHS tape. It also enables disabling of Regional Coding, which prevents DVDs purchased outside the U.S. from playing here.

How is it possible that Circuit City sells a machine that seemingly violates international copyright laws? Circuit City will have a hard time claiming ignorance -- one of its ads for the player boldly states, ”This is the DVD player the whole Internet has been talking about!“ Sure, ”Loopholes“ is a hidden menu -- you have to push a few special buttons to access it. Apex‘s U.S. distributor in Ontario, California, explains (correctly) that the menu exists for service technicians, that it certainly isn’t included in the instruction manual and that many other brands of players have similar menus. A Circuit City spokesman says, ”We do not recommend, or endorse, that anyone tamper with these hidden menus, as it can damage the equipment and may void the warranty.“

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Of course, there are several wholly innocent reasons you might want to defeat Macrovision and Regional Coding on your DVD player. In fact, most of the 4,000 current messages on alt.video.dvd.tech, an Internet newsgroup, are looking for ”hack chips“ and other methods to accomplish this on other brands of DVD players. Personally, I like to copy a few of my favorite movie scenes to a special tape for my use only. This would seem perfectly okay under copyright and piracy law, but it‘s impossible with Macrovision up and running.

But Macrovision doesn’t just prevent copying; in most cases it will even prevent you from running a DVD player‘s signal through a VCR on the way to your TV. If you own a TV without a video input (yes, they still exist), and you buy a DVD player without an RF (channel-3) output (which includes most of them), you’ll discover that the only way to connect your DVD player to the TV without buying extra equipment is through the VCR. But Macrovision will prevent you from making this connection. Want to play your DVD player through your VCR‘s front panel inputs for convenience? Same problem.

Defeating Regional Coding is a whole other matter. Film-industry types argue the codes are necessary to curb a growing worldwide piracy threat. Critics, however, accuse the companies of trying to maximize profits through a practice known as ”price discrimination,“ which is illegal under U.S. and much international law. a American DVDs come out in Europe several months later and at higher prices; conversely, Indian DVDs cost less, since India has less money. Regional Codes prevent consumers from taking advantage of these different world prices, critics say.

Some American movies are released on DVD in other countries before they’re available here, and other programs, such as popular British TV shows and various music specials, are sold on DVD in other countries but not here. The Apex DVD player has the unique ability to play European TV system recordings (PAL) on an American TV (NTSC). But this would be of no use if you couldn‘t turn off Regional Coding, which effectively locks out playback of any disc which is marketed for another country.

The Apex player is hardly the first with a hidden feature to turn off Macrovision and Regional Coding. The original Sony DVP-S7000 players had two tiny switches on the bottom circuit board that could defeat both security features. Sony blamed ”hackers“ for discovering these switches, but who put them there in the first place? Early-model Pioneer players also had a ”hidden menu“ to turn off security. Today, many people still defeat security with a computer DVD drive and software downloaded from the Internet.

What’s really great about the Apex is that, unlike most other DVD systems, it can also play things you record yourself on CDR and CDRW recordable discs. Not only will the Apex play regular audio discs you record yourself, but it can also play MP3 files and video discs recorded onto CDRs. The MP3 feature is particularly interesting because you can record over 12 hours of stereo music on a $1 blank CDR disc and play it on this machine. MP3 files can be downloaded from the Internet, or you can convert your own CDs or Wave files to MP3 format with a ripper-encoder program. Of course, Internet MP3s carry their own controversy; many are hit songs uploaded from commercial CDs without permission. The Apex can also play VCD (Video CDs common in Asia), SuperVCD and other special formats. And, oh yes, it‘s also a karaoke machine with four styles of digital reverb.

How did the Chinese build such a versatile machine? It turns out the Apex has a Korean-made computer DVD drive inside. The drive solved two problems at once: It saved the Chinese company from having to develop and license the technology itself, and it reads data off the disc, allowing playback of the varied formats -- MP3, NTSC or PAL video, etc. -- while ignoring all security features in the process.

The question of how such machines can be sold in the U.S. is more interesting. Copyright and piracy laws don’t say anything specifically about hidden menus. But if a machine can be converted to ”illegal“ use with the touch of a few buttons, it seems less than 100 percent kosher. So far, no reports of arrests at Circuit City -- funny how the FBI puts most of its efforts against lone hackers and not large corporations.

For more information about the Apex DVD player, see www.nerd-out.comapex.

  • Chinese DVD player evades security -- and it doesn't even need a hack

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