September 12, 2012 by Julia
This is an issue that likely concerns many fans of contemporary non-American media:
A recent study found that those who participate in illegal file-sharing are not flying under the radar, but rather are closely monitored within hours of engaging in suspect activity.
The study, conducted at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom, used software created by computer scientists that emulated the file-sharing program BitTorrent and logged all interactions and connections made to it, the Korea IT Times reported.
Over the course of the three-year study, researchers reportedly saw monitoring firms tracking activity within three hours of a given download.
Sure, some fans of American media probably also share this concern, but frankly, any illegal downloading in which they engage is almost certainly indefensible, so that’s not what I’m talking about here. Rather, let’s talk about downloading material that is not originally American.
I’ll come back to the above article in the end, but let’s take a detour on the way. First, some background for those who may be interested in intellectual property law but may not be familiar with the plight of those of us who follow media (television shows, movies, books, comics, etc.) published elsewhere. For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to use Japan as a stand-in for other countries, because I personally happen to have encountered these issues as a fan of Japanese anime, movies, and live-action television shows (“j-dramas”). Also, the necessary disclaimers: nothing in this post constitutes legal advice. If you have any specific questions, please speak with a local attorney. Also, while I study copyright law as a hobby, I am not a copyright (or any other form of intellectual property) lawyer.
When new Japanese television shows debut, they air, unsurprisingly, in Japan; similarly, when new Japanese books are released, they are released in Japanese book stores. Those of us in other countries who want to partake of this media have three basic choices: (1) purchase the original Japanese release of the book, DVD box set, etc.; (2) wait for a legal release in North America; or (3) acquire an illegal copy of the original Japanese release. Option (1) may be preferred by purists, but obstacles include not being able to understand Japanese, high shipping costs, retailers who do not ship overseas at all, and region-locked DVDs and BDs. Option (2) is noble, but is hampered by licensing delays that are sometimes very long, some properties never being licensed (and therefore never available legally outside of imports), some properties being only partially released before being cancelled, and occasional complaints about the release method (i.e. subtitled-only or English-dubbed-only). Option (3) is straight-up illegal, and can be achieved through either bootleg hard copies or downloading files.
The first thing to note here is that there is no “right” to partake of this media. Out of all the things you can argue are human rights, the right to watch a television show is nowhere on the list. Seriously. As a luxury, therefore, media and the companies/people who produce it do not “owe” us anything other than the specific content for which we pay. If I buy a DVD, the company owes me a working DVD. If I like a show, the makers of the show do not owe me anything–especially not an American release. (I say this as a huge fan, don’t get me wrong. I just happen to not have a huge sense of entitlement)
Okay, so here’s the scene: in a month or so, a new season of anime will start in Japan. Let’s say that show A will be simulcast on Crunchyroll and show B will not be simulcast. Someone in Japan, however, tapes show B each week and sends it to a group of people who translate it and create subtitles for it (a process called “fansubbing”). You can watch show A legally via Crunchyroll, but there is no way to watch show B legally unless you are located in Japan and watch it on tv or your DVR. The only way to watch show B is to download the fansub, which is part unauthorized derivative work (illegal under both U.S. and Japanese copyright law–yes, translations are derivative works) and part original work being distributed without authorization (also illegal in both countries).
Japanese companies rarely make a big deal over fansubs of unlicensed shows or “scanlations” (scans of comics with translated text inserted into the word bubbles) of unlicensed manga, with one notable exception being School Rumble. Fansubs are believed to increase interest among foreign fans, and can encourage the licensing of shows that may never have been licensed–or raise the price of the licensed. I suspect (but have no evidence) that The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Puella Magi Madoka Magica were licensed quicker and at a higher price than if they hadn’t–deservedly–become internet sensations. As a side note, Madoka Magica did not have a simulcast, so it got popular solely through fansubs; without the fansubs, it may never have receive an American DVD release at all.
As you can probably guess, I am not morally opposed to fansubs of unlicensed series that have no legal method of viewing. Yes, it’s still illegal, but not immoral. Shows that ARE licensed are another thing entirely, though. If a show is simulcast, it is almost always available FOR FREE. The only exception is The Anime Network, but to be honest, Crunchyroll gets the bulk of the licenses. The “downsides” to watching for free are a one-week wait time for each episode and commercials, but really, you’re just time-shifting the whole show one week later; you would have to wait a week between episodes anyway. Plus, you’d have commercials if you watched the episode on live television. Besides, both of these “downsides” can be completely eliminated for $8/month at both Crunchyroll and Hulu. When it comes down to it, there is NO EXCUSE for watching fansubs of shows that are simulcast. None. Those shows are available for free, with English subtitles, a week after the original air date–no excuse.
AND YET! There are always idiots out there who can’t appreciate good things. I don’t know if it’s sheer contrariness, the hipster’s refusal to be “mainstream” without irony, a rebellion against authority, a mistaken definition of “freedom,” or what, but there are people out there who absolutely insist on watching fansubs of simulcast shows. Seriously, it is RIGHT THERE, for free, and no, no, they have to go get the illegal version. “I don’t want to wait a week.” “I don’t like the translations that the companies do.” “I don’t like commercials.” “The companies are trying to screw me over.”
WTF? You can solve two of those problems by paying $8/month. Don’t have $8/month? THEN WAIT A WEEK AND WATCH COMMERCIALS. Seriously, would you steal a tv because you can’t afford it? I would hope that the answer is no, so why would you steal anime? There is no right to watch this stuff; it’s purely a luxury. Not having the money is not an excuse to steal luxury items–it doesn’t even have the supposed moral ambiguity of stealing food for your starving family. You stole anime for your starving family? Great job, genius.
By the way, this notion that fansubbers or scanlators working in their spare time turn out better translations than professionals who get paid is absurd. “The love of the product” is a weak motivator compared to “you lose your job if you give us shitty translations.” Plus, how much can you love something if you don’t pay the people who make it (even by simply viewing the commercials attached to it–increased ad value increases the licensing fees the next time around) so that they can feed their own families and maybe even make of that thing you say you love? But anyway, my Japanese isn’t as good as it used to be, but I still speak it well enough that I can personally promise you that the professionals do a MUCH better job than the amateurs. Sure, I have some quibbles, but on the whole, I’d rather have a professional product. You that whole “profit motive” thing? Yeah, it’s real.
Even sillier, though, is the idea that the proper response to a company allegedly trying to screw you over is to steal its product. Um, no, just don’t consume the product at all. It’s not hard. What is stronger–your anger at the company or your desire to see that show? If your desire is stronger, then you have to buy the product. It’s not that hard. Again, if you were really mad at Sony, would you go and steal a Sony tv? That makes no sense–just buy a different brand (watch a different show), or admit that your “scruples” are weaker than your desire for things.
So now that I’ve got that rant off my chest, let’s talk about private companies tracking your illegal downloading habits.
At least 10 different monitoring establishments reportedly logged downloaded content, the Korea IT Times learned.
The purpose of overseeing such activity was not immediately apparent to researchers, however.
“Many firms are simply sitting on the data,” Chothia noted. “Such monitoring is easy to do and the data is out there so they think they may as well collect it as it may be valuable in future.”
Yes, it’s creepy. Being unknowingly monitored by private companies is undeniably creepy. BUT, here’s the thing: you have no expectation of privacy on the internet when you are connecting to public servers to engage in illegal activity. A monitoring company can connect to those public servers just as easily as you can. It’s like mugging someone in broad daylight and bitching because someone videotaped you with his cell phone. If private companies start hacking into my computer, then I’m going to have a huge problem, but I really can’t complain that they may be monitoring my downloads of j-dramas (because seriously, at this point, almost everything I want to watch is simulcast, but for some reason, no one has found it economically feasible to license j-dramas for any sort of North American distribution) because I’m doing it IN PUBLIC.
I will console myself with the fact that “less popular content was not checked on nearly as frequently as more prominent or desirable items,” which probably means very few people are monitoring j-dramas. And frankly, they have bigger fish to fry than my meager j-drama habit–but don’t expect me to cry a river for people who do get arrested. You know you’re breaking the law, and you know you’re doing it in public . . . WHAT DO YOU EXPECT TO HAPPEN?
(I do not support SOPA, as it is too broadly drawn and would completely overturn existing jurisprudence in several areas of law that I like the way they are. I do not, however, have any sympathy for infringers)