Government measures to crack down on online piracy of manga and anime content have failed to move forward after a series of plans and ideas discussed since last year by a panel of experts at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry and the Cultural Affairs Agency stalled in the face of various criticism and concerns.

A plan making it legal to block access to pirate websites or issue warnings to users trying to access such sites has gone nowhere out of concern it would violate the constitutionally guaranteed secrecy of communication, while a proposed amendment to the copyright law that would have made it punishable to knowingly download any type of content illegally placed online was aborted due to worries that excessive regulation could deter legitimate internet use and hinder the free exchange of information.

The stalemate indicates there is no panacea to comprehensively resolve the problems posed by pirate websites. But as the government struggles to come up with a solution, the damage from sites that violate the rights of copyright holders continues. All parties involved, including those in relevant industries, should keep on seeking measures that effectively choke off the online piracy business.

Websites that pirate manga and anime let viewers access the content for free without obtaining the consent of or paying royalties to the copyright holders. Amid growing concern that online piracy could threaten the survival of the manga industry, the government took an “emergency” measure of urging internet service providers (ISPs) to voluntarily block access to three pirate sites that were deemed particularly malicious. To take legislative steps that would back up such a measure, the government created a panel of representatives from the publishing and communications industries as well as legal experts in June last year to discuss legalizing the blocking of access to piracy websites.

Discussions by the panel, however, were split as some of the lawyers and members from the communications industry raised concern that the measure, which would require ISPs to monitor users to find out what websites they’re visiting and block their access to certain sites, could infringe on the right of secrecy of communication as guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. The panel failed to reach a consensus and the plan to legalize the blocking measure was shelved.

Then the Cultural Affairs Agency drafted an amendment to the copyright law in February that would prohibit the downloading of all types of content knowing it was uploaded without the consent of the copyright holder — whereas currently such a ban is limited to music and video content — and impose criminal penalties on malicious offenders. Widespread concern was raised, however, that this might result in hampering the free exchange of legitimate information on the web.

Since it would be difficult for users to know whether the material they are downloading has been illegally uploaded, experts warned that the mere idea that people might be punished for downloading content could discourage them from using material for private research or creative activity. Others raised doubts as to whether the revision would serve as an effective deterrent since there have so far been no cases of people being caught downloading pirated music or videos. The proposal eventually fell by the wayside when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party would not endorse it in the Diet.

Then an idea came up in April to flash a warning on the device of any user trying to access a pirate website. But the internal affairs ministry panel concluded last week that such a measure is not practical because, as in blocking access to pirate sites, it would entail monitoring users’ online activity and thus could infringe on the secrecy of communication.

The largest of the pirate sites singled out as malicious by the government was shut down in April last year. It is believed to have been started in 2015 at the latest and began to attract large numbers of views in 2017 — 160 million a month at its peak. The site is estimated to have caused more than ¥300 billion in financial damage to copyright holders. Its operator, who was put on the wanted list for violating copyright law, was recently taken into custody in the Philippines. Sales of the print versions of the pirated content have reportedly recovered. However, similar websites continue to emerge. Efforts must be sustained to eliminate online piracy and protect the interests of copyright holders.

Halting advertising on pirate websites — the primary source of revenue for the operators — is believed to be effective in stifling them. An organization of copyright holders reportedly plans to launch a council with groups of advertisers to beef up steps against running ads on the sites. These and other effective steps to choke off illegal websites should be steadily explored and implemented.

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