Anime in the Crosshairs – The War on Bittorrent

Last week, I witnessed a truly disgusting display of the entertainment industry’s war against the bittorrent peer-to-peer method of file sharing. American Internet-based TV company Revision3 was shut down over the Memorial Day weekend due to a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack to its server. The cause of the attack was the company Artistdirect and their MediaDefender service. The service, which is paid for by the movie and music industry, searches for “bittorrent tracker” sites, fills the site with fake files, and then administers the DDoS attack if the bittorret site attempts to block MediaDefender from doing its thing, which is what happened to Revision3.

MediaDefender, along with most of the entertainment industry, assumes that bittorrent can only be used for the purposes of illegal file sharing and piracy. Revision3, on the other hand, used the peer-to-peer technology as a completely legitimate and legal method of distributing their TV shows over the internet, only to be punished for doing so by the entertainment industry it is a part of.

What sickened me the most about this story was looking at the front page of the MediaDefender website and seeing our favorite medium of entertainment being very specifically targeted in their war against bittorrent.

Bittorrent is a vital component of the American otaku culture, and it has become that way for a very good reason:

It is a brilliant form of technology!

One of the biggest problems with distributing video and other large files over the internet is that for every bit of data that someone downloads must in turn be uploaded from the person who is giving it to them. If too many people attempt to download a video off of one server, the server get overwhelmed, the bandwidth gets hogged up, and this can result in really slow download speeds or the server just crapping out on everyone.

With bittorrent, the file is not being hosted by just one server but by the computers of the people downloading the file. Instead of getting your file off of one computer, you get the file off of hundreds of your fellow “peer” computers bit-by-bit at a time. In return, you send other people tiny bits of the file from your own computer. This ensures that there is not just one server being hogged up when a new show hits the web. The workload is being evenly distributed among everyone using it. The diagram below shows this technology in action, as pieces of the video file come from computers around the world collect into your own computer in the center.

Bittorrent is a beautifully designed system of distributing large files to many users without hogging bandwidth and resources. The fansubbing process further utilizes this technology by obtaining an untranslated anime episode, pooling together a team of volunteers to translate the material, and then redistributing the file to the community over the bittorrenting system. It’s fast, efficient, and works perfectly.

Because it is currently the best method of releasing anime and video on a global scale, the use of fansubs is huge in the American otaku community. As much as one tries to fight it, it will not go away until a better technology is invented, and in many ways, it really shouldn’t go away. Unfortunately, the legality of the system is still a cause of concern for the industry and the users, and it is the reason why the system is in the crosshairs of the entertainment industry.

Make no mistakes about it, the technology of bittorrent is not illegal, as you can see by Revision3′s legitimate use of the service. However, the files that you use bittorrent to distribute can be and often are illegal, as is the case with fansubs right now. Even if the series has no American distributor or license holder, downloading unlicensed anime fansubs is still illegal. Why? Because it can and does harm “potential future sales” of the product if or when it becomes available in the US on DVD. But let’s focus on that “if” in that statement. What happens to series that do not become imported?

Let’s take last year’s “Kodomo no Jikan’ as an example. While it was one of the more well written series to have come out in quite some time, it had to deal with a lot of controversy on both sides of the Pacific due to the taboo nature of its plot. First, the production of a US release of the manga was halted before the series ever hit store shelves. When it was adapted into an anime series and aired on Japanese television, it was met with even more controversy and negative press in its own native country.

If the manga was flat-out banned like that in America, then the even more controversial anime is almost certain to never be released over here. So if we wanted to legally watch the show legally in America, how can we?

Buy and import the Japanese DVDs?

Nope. As ridiculous as it sounds, even that’s illegal.

DVDs are “region coded”, which means that they are encrypted with a special password that are meant only to be used on DVD players for a specific country or region. America and Japan fall under different regions, so a Japanese DVD cannot be played on American DVD players and vice-versa. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) states that any unauthorized decryption of copy-protection media, like the region coding on DVDs, is illegal and punishable even if you legally purchased the DVD. “Region Free” DVD players do exist, but they are hacks to break DVD encryption, which makes them illegal under DMCA. That’s the reason why region-free DVD players are only sold on the black market and not at your local Best Buy.

Under the DMCA, there is no legal way possible of ever watching any unlicensed anime show in America, and that is the biggest flaw with this copy-protection system. So we must turn to illegal methods of watching anime because we never know when the opportunity will arise for us to ever watch it legally.

… or in the case of Kodomo no Jikan, if that opportunity will even exist at all…

So if bittorrenting provides the best – and often only – method of receiving anime, how does the anime industry stop illegal file sharing? Well, to quote a bunch of stoners:

Legalize it.

As we can see with the fansubbing community, bittorrent and global distribution is already the direction that the market is going towards. The only thing holding it back is the Japanese companies at the root of the chain. They are reluctant to utilize the technology and go global with their product. They have gone many years on the idea of creating an anime show only for the Japanese market. They spend money to promote the show in Japanese magazines, and they spend money to broadcast the show on Japanese TV. After this, they can finally attempt to make their profit from the series by quickly selling merchandise and DVDs to that Japanese market while the show is still a hot property. Only after this whole process is done in Japan do they even start to think about releasing the show in America.

But with bittorrent and fansubbing, the whole market has changed. They don’t just broadcast a show to Japanese otaku anymore, they broadcast to otaku around the world. And so the only way that they are going to be able to profit off of that global market is to start selling to that global market from the very beginning. Create a show knowing that the Americans are going to watch it via the bittorrent system. Encourage the ratings and hype of the show by advertising to that audience on blogs or other English-language websites. Then start your profit by making merchandise available overseas and begin selling / renting subtitled DVDs while the series is still going on.

This global release strategy is not that unusual of an idea in the entertainment industry. Take Disney’s attitude towards their new Chronicles of Narnia movie. The series has a huge fan base in Japan, so the company spent a lot of work on promoting the film for the Japanese market simultaneously with the American market. The result was that a Japanese subtitle of the film was released into Japanese theaters only a week after it premiered in America. The film has yet to be released in other English-speaking countries like Austrilia or the UK, but it’s already out in Japan. When you know where your market is, that’s where you need to focus your attention.

There is a clear market for brand-new anime in US, and it’s all thanks to the beautifully implemented system of bittorrent and fansubbing. While the technology can be used for illegal purposes, it can also be used for completely legal and legitimate reasons. As long as it works flawlessly – and as long as it’s free of the limits of copy-protection, the DMCA, and other unnecessary restrictions – fansubbing will be there. In order for Japanese companies to adapt to and profit off of this new technology, they must begin treating bittorrent in exactly the same way that many American otaku are treating it:

The new way of broadcasting anime to the world.

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