They are watching you . . . steal stuff


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)


6 thoughts on “They are watching you . . . steal stuff

  1. thornharp says:

    How do we get the really superior anime licensed over here? In particular, Dennou Coil, in Blu-Ray. The only English language licensed version I could find was from Australia, and in DVD only. I would think the geek factor would make this an opportunity for a joint between ThinkGeek and RightStuf, but the Japanese publisher is reportedly very skeptical about American companies’ respect for ‘true art’…

    I wonder where that attitude came from. Maybe from seeing all six OVAs of Video Girl Ai compressed down to fit on one disk? (one of my pet peeves versus that era of VIZ)

    And (as long as I’ve got my grudge list out) what about the older outstanding shows from the laser disc era that, as far as I’ve been able to find out, never even got a Japanese DVD release — Bakuen Campus Guardress, for starters. Bootleg digisubs may be the only remaining resource for the old LD era shows.

    • Ish says:

      The most sure and certain way to get more anime licensed overseas is really rather simple: buy the stuff that is already here. Japanese studios really aren’t that arcane — despite the raft of cultural differences between Japan and the West (which is why most of us enjoy Japanese media in the first place) — at the end of the day, Japanese studios want to make money. If they see a market, they will move to sell stuff to that market. One person’s purchasing power isn’t going to sway a studio, true, but it all adds up in the long haul.

      Also, perhaps try finding the business address of the publisher(s) and sending a nicely worded “To Whom It May Concern” letter. Goodness knows the average Japanese middle manager probably reads better English than most American high school English teachers, so the language barrier probably isn’t a hinderance… A letter writing campaign kept Star Trek on the air, use social media to get a few thousand folks sending snailmail letters along the lines of “Please Sell Us DVDs of SuperUltra Happy Warrior! Robot GO!” ought to have some impact.

      • Julia says:

        Buying already-released anime in the same genre or category would give the American companies a good presentation to make to the Japanese rights holders, but I don’t think writing letters would help because the problem is usually more than, “Hmmmm, I wonder if there is enough demand?”

        The American licensees know what shows are popular, thanks to the Internet. That’s how Kodansha knew to do a re-release of the Sailor Moon manga when it wasn’t even around long enough yet to have received mail from fans, and Aniplex knew to release Madoka Magica even without a simulcast to gauge interest. In some cases, you can also say, “the Internet and past sales of related shows,” but magical girl shows do TERRIBLE in America, so it’s really show-specific in that genre. Sailor Moon and Madoka Magica are going to rake in the money, Wedding Peach and Magical Lyrical Girl Nanoha did not. That’s also why we rarely get sports anime anymore–Americans just don’t buy it. As someone who loves Prince of Tennis and got screwed when Viz stopped the anime release after three box sets, that is super annoying to me, by the way. At least I could buy the full run of the manga.

        The real issue is getting the licenses in the first place. Sometimes the Japanese company isn’t selling, or has an inflated opinion of the value of the property, or insists that the American company buy these three other stupid little shows at the same time, or doesn’t understand the pricing model in the American market. And sometimes, there’s Macross. Even when there is demand, and everyone knows there is demand (i.e. the five original seasons of the Sailor Moon anime), there can still be no license. The Japanese companies do not consider the US a huge source of income, which is another part of the problem. They make anime for Japanese audiences, and whether we like it in North America is a byproduct. That attitude is thoroughly outmoded and short-sighted, but it’s still hanging around.

        Here are some great ANNCast episodes on the perils of running American anime distributors: (my favorite–what the heck happened at Geneon?)

  2. Julia says:

    I think Japanese companies had a legit complaint about how US companies would treat their products at one point (*cough*Cardcaptors*cough*), but I don’t know if that holds up today. Funimation is turning out a pretty good product, and if they were truly concerned, Aniplex is basically a Japanese company with an American subsidiary. I agree that the ideal situation would be getting a North American release in the first place, though. I suspect the Japanese companies are most concerned about the market and getting paid their licensing fees, considering how many American anime and manga companies have collapsed in the last four years. I’ve also heard that Japanese companies are inflating the prices of their licenses because they don’t really understand the American market (i.e. no one learned the lessons of Bandai Visual), which prices the remaining American distributors out of the market if they don’t think they can get the money back in our anemic market.

    I wouldn’t say that wanting a BD over a DVD is a good excuse for downloading or purchasing a bootleg of the high quality release, though (not that you advocated that, but in general). But, there not being a legal North American release is my bright line rule. If there is no legal North American release, while still illegal, downloading would not be immoral, IMO. (bootlegs are another story. I didn’t go into it, but they’re almost all produced by the Chinese Triads–seriously shady stuff, and nothing we should want to give money to)

    You’ve also got a great point about the older shows no one wants to license anymore. There is a teeny, tiny market in the US for older shows, so we aren’t seeing a lot of licenses (is anyone besides Discotek even looking at old titles that aren’t license rescues from Geneon?). Again, I’ve got no moral problem with fansubbing those series. Yes, in theory, we have no RIGHT to watch those shows, so we can’t really justify running out and stealing them, but at the same time, if no one is even offering them for sale, we couldn’t pay someone even if we wanted to (which I assume most of us do).

    • Ish says:

      It’s not anime or j-drama, but there is a small but hardcore fanbase for the Super Sentai shows (better known to many Western fans via the Power Ranger franchise). But the deal between the Japanese studio and Saban (the guys what make PR) keeps any verision of the original out of North America.

      Harmony Gold’s purchase of the rights to Macross, Southern Cross, and Mospeada — far more ironclad and far more unfair to the original Japanese producers — also keeps just about anything related to those shows out of North America or repackaged as Robotech.

      Harmony Gold got the rights when Japanese animation was in its infancy, and basically acted in the manner of ever Hollywood film depiction of the corrupt record exec that takes advanatge of the innocednt young talent… and they’ve been “squatting” on the IP rights for nearly 30 years. Saban’s deal with the Super Sentai guys is a lot more fair to the Japanese production house, but you’re not going to see any of those original shows released in the US… a darn shame.

      • Julia says:

        Listen, all I want are my dramas. I would pay a pretty penny to get live action Hana Yori Dango on Region 1 DVD. Dramas are a situation where I think they don’t understand the extent of the demand–the producers aren’t as linked into the English fansites as the anime people are (or maybe because there are no US licensees to point it out to them?).

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