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Free Information Society?

December 14th, 2007

NomoreidiocyIn America, you hear of lawsuits by the RIAA to sue for “damages” by 70-year-old grannies downloading gangsta rap at 2:00 am, so as to recover the “lost revenues” due to piracy. You don’t really hear that in Japan so much. Yes, movie theaters always play the “Save Our Movies” anti-piracy movies, but they’re a joke. The image at right is from the latest campaign. The first had a girl crying black tears which became a pirate’s skull; the second had a comically stupid series of images of a dastardly movie pirate stealing films to the terror of those around him. You’d think that the RIAA was making inroads into Japan.

The fact is, in Japan, you’d have a hard time suing anyone. The court system here is very different from the U.S. People who are clearly the victims of wrongdoing might spend decades in court, and if they win, instead of getting millions of dollars, they might–if they’re lucky–walk away with a few thousand. So the idea of mass lawsuits here is rather unlikely.

Now, Japan is no pirate’s haven like China. When I was in Shanghai, I saw pirates selling $1 movie DVDs on every other street corner. Were the police to care, they could easily catch these guys, but obviously, government policy is to turn a blind eye.

Japan is not nearly so brazen. I have never seen pirate software or DVDs on sale here. Private piracy, however, is almost condoned. Unlike the U.S., music CD rentals are allowed. And when you go to the music/movie rental store, you will see blank CDs and DVDs on sale right at the register, like an impulse buy. The message is clear: you wanna copy that disc? Go ahead. Nobody’s stopping you. Often, when my students have music they want to include in a presentation, they use a blank CD-R that has something from the rental store on it.

Which leaves me wondering about Japan’s future as a “free information society.” In truth, Japan seems quite ready to adopt all the DRM technology that’s becoming ubiquitous in the U.S. Already, I am having trouble buying video games available only in Japan for my nephews, because the games are increasingly region-encoded. Which makes no sense, as these are games that never make it to the U.S.–region encoding just denies the content maker more sales.

But in Japan, that’s how it sometimes is: you follow the stream and flow, whether it makes sense to you or not. It seems that in Japan, there’s no big bugaboo or hullabaloo about private, individual piracy in the home–but they are just fine with adopting DRM that makes it very difficult.

It’s kind of like the laws against explicit pornography; while they now allow for pubic hair, genitalia are still strictly forbidden, carefully pixelated out–despite the fact that explicit images are easily found via the Internet, with not any thought given to censoring them.

Like so many things in Japan, it’s all about form, and little to do with substance.

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