Thoughts from a Japanese Media Pirate

The following was submitted for publication by a reader who asked to remain anonymous — Rob

I just finished Pirate Cinema and felt the need to write something about it, because it concerns a cause that's near to my heart. I saw myself in protagonist Trent McCauley, who makes new movies by chopping up footage from popular films, despite the consequences of getting his Internet taken away or being fined or imprisoned in the book's near-future scenario.

This is because I do the same thing. I'm one of those people who remixes different media and posts the finished pieces online. I combine Japanese television dramas, films, PVs, and clips from variety shows with mostly American songs, however, because I like the contrast of Japanese visual media with American music.

When Trent talks about seeing a film in your head and needing to make it and put it out there, I know exactly what he means. I recognize the same need in myself. Once, for a two-year period, I had a music video in my head for the Japanese drama Honey and Clover, set to The Swell Season's Falling Slowly. I created what I envisioned, and to this day, I still love watching it because I'm proud of what I created. It's something I made to convey a certain feeling, and even after making it with that feeling in mind, what resulted was a layered piece with unexpected themes running through it.

The way I obtain Japanese media is through the net and through sharing with other fans. I'm not clear on international copyright law, but I know that some kind of law is being broken when we download these videos. For now, with us fans and our fandoms, it's a very gray area. The Japanese companies know that we share videos, but they don't do much to stop it. The worst they usually do is shut down a streaming video site where these shows are hosted.

For those that do English subtitles for Japanese media, there is always a battle between those creating the videos, who offer the work for download free-of-charge, and the streaming sites who take the files without permission, post them to their own websites, and receive revenue through advertising. It's not that subbers want a cut of the profits; they simply don't want for-profit streaming sites to draw corporate attention to their work. By posting the videos to a streaming site, Japanese companies can see the encoded logos on the videos and then order those groups to shut down their operations even though those groups do not make any money from their works.

When MegaUpload was shut down, the Japanese media fan community was in an uproa, as it was our main way to directly share our sources and creations. Patchy torrents are now all that remains, along with a handful of somewhat reliable cloud servers. Those aren't even guaranteed, and in the bleakest of moments we worry that we'll have to resort to the days of recording to video or DVD and sharing videos that way.

We're slowly rebuilding, but we've been hit hard. All of our archives are gone. Communities that had thrived for years—places you might find a long-forgotted drama from 1987—are gone. The videos that I had made and hosted on MegaVideo are gone. All of the files I'd hosted and provided for people are gone. Even the ones I had created myself, for classwork and without any copyrighted material, are gone. They exist only offline, in random external drives, where they cannot be shared.

This isn't to oppose copyright. I agree that we need copyright law, but also that we should have access to everything. I'm all for supporting artists and buying their work, but is anyone suffering for the existence of mashups? Personally, I feel for my parents, who live week-to-week on my Dad's garment factory paycheck (where he makes jeans for less than $10 a pair, which end up priced at $300 in the store) supplemented by odd jobs my mom takes up. They're suffering too. Can you say the suffering of media companies is equivalent? I don't think so. I think we should be able to use these things the way we want to.

I know a lot of people who would be happy to have an all-inclusive Japanese media archive and wouldn't mind paying a small fee for access to everything. Wouldn't it be great to see Japanese dramas and films licensed in much the same way as anime site Crunchyroll? It started out hosting media without permission from any rightsholders, but went on to build good relationships with them. They used to be a streaming site for Asian dramas, films, and anime, but after going legit, the focus is now on anime. They have some dramas, but few popular or well-known dramas that are in high demand.

I plan to support this stance and hope that, in the near future, we can make it a reality.


  1. I reckon the new draconian copywrong laws in Japan are going to be an additional kick in the groin to fans… 

    1. Instead of waiting until after it left NYC to strangle it in the early 90s.

      How Copyright Law Changed Hip Hop interview with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Hank Shocklee

      I think they were more powerful then. But at the time all they could wreck was VHS and audio cassettes. Now they can wreck the network, ie. the world. A massively enlarged and extended world where unprecedented media power, once held solely by a handful of corporations, has been made 100 times more powerful and then put in the hands of billions of people. That’s a lot to wreck.

  2. Dear North American animé localization and distribution industry: you are doomed to die because you can’t or won’t adapt to a changing market and customer demographic and I will not miss you after you’re gone.

    Some Guy.

    P.S. You don’t have to die*, but the only one who can help you: is you.

    *If you can’t compete with FREE, then DON’T.

    I am an animé fan (to put it mildly…). I watch unauthorized digital downloads of your licensed shows, I also buy your authorized discs to do the right thing. They sit on a shelf, unopened and unwatched, because your (Warning: minority opinion!) over-acted English-language dubbing is garbage, your interactive menus are garbage, your unskippable ads are garbage, your unskippable anti-piracy warning is garbage: It’s like I’m paying you to annoy me for the crime of doing the right thing. So, on the shelf your product sits, while I watch the same videos from my house’s file-server, unauthorized, but free from your ritualized annoyance.
    However, unwatched discs aren’t the only animé-related things I have clogging-up my room; there also is a great deal of animé MERCHANDISE that I’ve purchased, as I am a fan (*cough* sometimes, it’s difficult to differentiate between an Otaku and a hoarder…), but here’s the thing: almost none of it was produced by the North American animé industry. There’s some plushies, some mecha toys, and a couple of posters, other little things, but only ≈$100U.S. worth, which is less than what I would pay (and have paid) for two legit, imported, Region-2 DVDs, but I assure you that’s not by choice. I don’t want to have to buy my weeaboo nerd swag (of questionable authenticity) from some shady specialty import shop. You’re leaving money on the table.
    Here’s the point and some free advice: DON’T LET THE PIRATES BE YOUR COMPETITOR! MAKE THEM YOUR (bitch) ADVERTISERS! Don’t focus on selling discs! That market is gone now! Dead! Forever! Focus instead on branded merchandise, cosplay accessories/props, and character goods. The Japanese have this worked into a science, theirs’ is a working marketing-model to (steal) emulate: in that, don’t be afraid to be niche, despite how American marketing-critters have a weird aversion against it; niche groups are small, but very loyal and are willing to shell out cash in unexpectedly large amounts if you can connect with them to give them what they want; likewise, don’t expect everything to be the next great hit, as most anime hits are sleeper hits; keep your ear to the ground; avoid “experts” or consultants, and above all:

    1. tl;dr: Disregard ADR. Don’t worry about disc sales, in fact, don’t focus on IP at all. Piracy isn’t a problem; it’s a marketing medium. Instead, focus on physical merchandise and character goods.

      1. Incidentally, when I say: “don’t focus on IP at all” that excludes trademark enforcement actions against commercial counterfeit physical merchandise.

        An individual seller of commercial counterfeit goods at a flea market stall, shady import store, or animé convention dealer booth (that the industry players, inexplicably keep ignoring, even if it’s right in front of them!), has caused many times more damage to the animé industry than all the file-sharers put together, since an illegitimate sale there is an actual lost-sale, rather than some imaginary number that some PR-flack made-up.

  3. This is long, and a bit rambly, and is really just my take on the situation in the anime community, as it relates to the producers and copyright and piracy as a whole.

    I am in some ways just another fan, albeit one who’s been around the scene for much longer than most. I’m not claiming objectivity (it doesn’t exist) or but I’m not really interested in taking sides either, so don’t expect me to sit here and say “piracy is fine, we should all do it” or “pirates are scum” because that’s not going to happen.


    Piracy is a very difficult issue for the anime industry to really get a grasp on outside of Japan.

    In Japan, it’s on TV, there’s commercials, you can see it in every bookstore in the country, etc. There’s a massive marketting engine for it. Most potential buyers are exposed first through the TV release, or by reading the manga or playing the game a series may have been based on.

    Outside of Japan, however, as most anime series will never make it to TV and magazine readership is almsot nonexistent, the primary advertising channel for most anime outside of Japan is actually the pirated fansubs. People will either download an episode to see if the show’s any good or ask a friend who has already done so. Websites exist, but they’re not even remotely as effective at generating fan interest as watching an episode is. I would venture an educated guess that most anime fans never actually look at most of the websites devoted to providing anime-related news.

    Further, to many fans, the fansubs are seen as the better product, even comparing them to free licensed versions such as crunchyroll – often with very good cause. The TV adaption of Cardcaptor Sakura bears little resemblence to the original after all the rewrites. Tellingly, a more accurately translated DVD happened, at the same time as the TV version was airing, by an entirely seperate company, because of a massive show of support by fans who were only even aware the series existed due to the fansubs who were enraged at the changes being made to adapt the show to suit the American TV-viewing audience. (It would have engendered a storm of complaints due to American sensitivities regarding what is appropriate for children)

    The thing is, ‘the fans’ aren’t a homogenous group. Many, if not most, fans of non-televised anime are geeks to some degree or other – and like all other geek varients can be very particular, and very, very vocal when they don’t like the way something is handled. (See the fan response to Lucas’s revisions of the original Star Wars movies, for example…) Using slangier english may increase the appeal for some fans but it outright infuriating others, some want cultural references left intact, others prefer some kind of vague English equivalent for simplicity. The companies that handle the English releases struggle to appeal simultaneously to the casual fans, the language-learners, the hardcore otaku, etc. all of whom have different expectations, and those expectations may not line up with what is economically feasible, given the expected return on their investment – and unlike the fansubbers, these guys are actually tyring to make money at the whole thing.

    It doesn’t help that we’re conditioned from childhood to consider TV as “free”. Kids and teens ton’t pay the cable bills, and don’t really consider the ads to be payment (in fact, most probably don’t consider the ads at all), so it never occurs to them that there’s a functional difference between downloading an anime from a torrent site or filedump, and watching something on cable. Either way, they’re not paying, so it’s all the same to them.

    There are massive numbers of fans, it’s not a small group by any means, and within them you have a number that are absolutely willing to sink serious money into the works they really like, many more who make more modest monetary investments, others who don’t contribute fincancially in a direct way, but spread the word and increase the numbers of the first two groups… Of course there’s an immense population of those who don’t really contribute in any way at all, but the worst they do, really, is fail to buy material… unless, of course, the company does something that irritates them, in which case they (and at least some of the other two groups) will become anti-fans, and start generating negative publicity, actively work to turn people against your products, etc.

    There’s some debate as to what the situation actually is. Some say that the industry is doing very poorly (often citing the failure of many of the original distribution companies) while others point out that the industry is still trucking along, and that their replacements are just leaner and more responsive to the market-as-it-is rather than the ones that fell by the wayside, not to mention the immense quanitity of anime produced, at a breakneck speed compared to western television. Four tv seasons a year in Japan, each 13 weeks long, and there are new episodes of at least a couple dozen different series pretty much every week, all year round. A few studios have fallen, a few have stumbled and picked themselves up again, but the industry as a whole seems to be rolling along.

    As a final note – I’ve seen the relationship between the fans and the creators described as everything from mutually beneficial symbiosis to being balanced on a knife’s edge of mutual destruction.

    1.  I will also add that it’s worth noting that the commercial translation and distribution industry – the entire market for anime and manga outside of Asia, was mostly driven by fans. Small groups of people bought or borrowed video tapes, huge sums of money getting the hardware that was required in the late 80s to early 90s to create fansubs, in many cases paid people to translate, and distributed the results for anywhere from free (to local members of the fanclub) to the cost of a blank videotape and shipping to those who had acquired a taste for it, and didn’t live near one of the groups that had stockpiles. Tapes were traded around, original versions of mangled TV series were screened at cons… the first companies that were formed explicitly to bring anime to foreign markets (ie, us) were formed explicitly to cater to these people, and were often made by folks who got their start when anime (then called Japanimation out here) was barely even recognized as existing outside it’s fanbase.

      At I just discovered that at least one of those first few companies, formed by fans for fans, out of a love for the work, still exists, albeit at a fraction of it’s former glory… AnimeEigo. It looks llike they’ve still got the rights to some of the old classics, and it’s even still run by the same guy after more than twenty years… You want to see the history of our subculture, it’s right there. Him and those like built the foundations for pretty much everything in the western fan community, one brick at a time.

  4. I wish there’s such thing as “global availability” law which no country can create a geo-block on the content and most people on the planet can get access to it. (Think of it as me a Canadian can buy something off Japanese iTunes.) That should put money directly to the creators in the “shut up and take my money” fashion.

    But what about the current license holder/distributors in North America (or anywhere else in the world)? One business model that they can use to generate revenue is through providing localization addons. For example, you can buy the show in original form from the source and a company provides downloadable addons (whether it may be a quality soft sub, sub/dub pack or companion/guide) that you can buy or subscribe. This way, the original content is intact, fans can choose what they want to add onto the media, and both original content creators and local distributors can earn their well-deserved stream of revenue.

    The reverse of this can be done with North American animation as well. If I’m the creator, I’d want everybody on the planet to enjoy it and not just for people within the confine of a nation. If they’re willing to pay me for it, LET THEM PAY!

    1. God, I wish that law existed. I do web development for the music industry, and we do MP3 sales. In the US only. Because negotiating rights in each country is surprisingly difficult, and the laws are INSANE.

      The problem is that local regulators and artist’s organizations have set up an income stream that would be disrupted by an international distribution mechanism. They would do better to just have a set ‘digital sales tax’ distributed to the country then to keep trying to protect these old, complex legal structures that only exist to support bureaucrats and trade organizations.

      Not having to explain to someone from France, or Israel, that they cannot buy MP3s from us because of restrictive licensing would be nice. We don’t overcharge, we’re at an industry standard price, but a century and more of legal protections built up around the world for the established entertainment industry makes it impossible to do. Too many entertainment lawyers, too many entrenched interests.

    2. Actually, I would prefer a simpler solution: make copyright more like trademark, specifically, trademark’s “use-it-or-lose-it” or “defend-it-or-lose-it” precepts, in that, someone can’t claim “copy-right” monopoly on something that they won’t actually make copies of.

      The whole point of copyright, as enumerated in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution of the United States of America: is “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”. To put it another way: The point of copyright is to make works “available” by granting a limited monopoly to make copies for sale by the rights-holder, as an incentive to make new works, not to protect old ones. The whole intrinsic value of the work is based on making it available for sale, so if a particular work is not “available” and thus, not being sold, it must not have any intrinsic value to the rights-holder, but may have value to the community.

      So, having various bits of culture locked-up (in-effect, forever, but that’s a different problem…) in back-catalogs, or under onerous licensing regimes, which in no way; “promote[s] the Progress of Science and useful Arts”, I have a modest proposal that this silliness be ended, by un-locking our shared culture via a new form of… um… how-shall-I-phrase-it… IP Eminent Domain, because if someone’s real property, their home (with MANY types of intrinsic value), can be taken away for the good of the community; for a highway or a hospital, for instance. If that property-owner decides to dig their heels in about the value and/or won’t negotiate in good-faith with the representatives of the community; they’ll be stuck with a check for $1 regardless of what they think their property’s worth, so why can’t the same apply to Imaginary Property?

      Therefore, if someone wants to deliberately block culture for whatever reason by making their works “un-available”, then they decide dig their heels in or won’t negotiate in good-faith with someone who will, the rights-holder, at the end of the IP Eminent Domain proceeding, will get compensated an arbitrarily small amount and their Imaginary Property becomes part of the Creative Commons and Public Domain (of that particular legal-jurisdiction). Now the work is owned by everyone, inducing the now-former exclusive-rights-holder, as part of shared-culture (…and everyone wins! Except for the lawyers.) .

  5. Any fool can cut up great literature, and paste up collages that form different if disjointed stories, however it is not to be confused with art or literature.  Get a job, learn to write, stop ripping off others.
    I hope someone sues the pants off of you.

    1. Any fool can cut up great literature, and paste up collages that form different if disjointed stories [..]

      I’d like to see you do that, although that wouldn’t necessarily answer the question as to whether you’re a fool.

    2.  I know, right? That William Shakespeare was such a fool, cutting apart and rehashing prior stories and plays to make his derivative pastiches! Maybe if that guy had learned to write something original, he’d be taught in every English class across the country instead of being the forgotten nobody he is today.

    3. Awww. We got up to twelve intelligent and nuanced comments before we hit the first troll. Twelve! That’s probably some sort of inernet record these days.

      I was wondering whether Woody Allen could have made “What’s up, Tiger Lily?” these days.

    4. But I was under the impression he wasn’t selling it?

      I agree that remix for profit is weak sauce so to speak, but if this something you like doing for kicks then I’d don’t see an issue with it.

      It’s like those Star Trek TNG edits on youtube.  They are dumb as hell, but I find them so funny.

      1. No, it doesn’t look like the author is doing this for profit.  He or she even mentions the trouble with streaming sites stealing work from others and putting it up for THEIR profits.  I agree with your comment, though.  If someone is taking a different work or different works and mixing it up to resell, then that’s just not cool, bro.  But to do it for the sake of artistry and to share with others?  Isn’t that why fanfiction exists?  No one complains about copyright in that area when there is no profit, yet the authors are using copyrighted characters.  When there is profit, authors have to change to original characters, but no one is getting hurt.  I reiterate what the article says and ask is this kind of work really hurting people or denying them money?  Don’t think so.

    5. I’m confused as to whom this comment is addressed.  Is it addressed to the author or to someone who commented above?

      Also, you’re saying that no fanfiction can be considered art?  What about fan-made drawings and paintings?  No?  They are taking things from licensed works and making new art, and is that not art in itself?  No?  What about all of the remakes coming from Hollywood lately?  They’re taking original characters and plotlines and basically cutting them up and redoing them creating a sort of “disjointed story” and all of that is okay?  So you are the Judge of What is Art and Literature?  So pleased to meet you, Sir/Madam.  I was wondering who you were.

      To everyone else, I apologize for feeding the troll a bit. ^_^

  6. So that’s why I can’t find episodes of Higurashi no Naku Kori Ni like, anywhere on the whole internet?

  7. Frankly, the way they translate and dub the shows for American releases makes the product worthless. You can’t even buy the quality of shows your pirating. look through any anime fan’s library and you’ll find sets of shows they bought and didn’t open or shows that will sit there and collect dust forever while they watch the already ripped copies they “stole” because they are vastly superior.

     A perfect American animation example: The Last Unicorn. the US released DVD is absolute crap. Full screen, poorly cropped. I can get a better picture by watching my ancient VHS copy. however, the German dvd rip I downloaded before the US dvd was even available was properly restored and presented in widescreen. It’s gorgeous. slap the English audio on it and it’s the perfect copy.

    It seems like they put more effort into releasing an inferior dvd here.

    I bought it at full retail and it took everything for me not to go back to the store and scream at someone who wasn’t even at fault.

     Stores wont let you return opened DVDs. Cause their worried about piracy.

  8. It looks like, when MegaVideo was shut down, a whole generation of mainstream users learnt a lesson about the virtues of backups and perils of centralisation. Hopefully, the next wave of services will be built with that lesson in mind. 

    In a way, the Free Web is going through the sort of evolution that data storage for PCs saw in the 90s: first we could store data only in memory, which was as volatile as P2P swarms; then we stored data in monolithic hard-disks which, like centralised cyberlockers, would bring down the entire system when they had a fault. Now we have redundant RAID and logical volume-spanning filesystems; between them and cloud synchronisation, it’s now fairly difficult to actually lose data on a local machine.

    We need a RAID filesystem for the Free Web.

  9. The thing that’s driving me nuts right now is that I am a teacher and I want to show videos from NHK’s NHK World channel to students who (like me) are anime fans and want to learn more about Japanese culture. Can I buy DVDs of these videos in the US? No. Can I download them, even, through Amazon or iTunes? No. Can I get them through DDL on a certain website or through torrent on a certain other website? Well, yes. Come on, NHK! GET A CLUE AND TAKE MY MONEY

    P. S. The 25th Anniversary edition of The Last Unicorn is widescreen, isn’t it? Don’t be lazy, fans. Peter S. Beagle has gotten screwed over repeatedly, so let’s not contribute to it.

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