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The MU Shutdown and Fandom

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I feel compelled to ramble about all the recent fuss over piracy, SOPA, and the shutdown of major filehost Megaupload… specifically how the latter relates to the Japanese media fandom. (It’s almost 2AM at the point of starting this, so here’s hoping I make sense. haha)
*Edit; realised a line’s gone missing somehow: Well, SOPA and the Megaupload shutdown aren’t directly related but since they’re kinda sorta related it’s just easier to lump them all together in one rambly blog post. haha

The Megaupload shutdown affects me because, you see, a large segment of people who follow Japanese media rely heavily on filehosts like Megaupload (known as “MU” to fans). Fans in Japan who are kind enough to record and upload TV shows (often immediately after they air) – variety shows, TV dramas, etc. – to a variety of hosting sites, of which MU is perhaps the most popular. (Or second most popular at the moment, maybe. I haven’t exactly conducted a detailed study of filehost popularity amongst J-media fans.) Thus, fans like me who are not based in Japan have the opportunity to download and watch these TV programmes to which they would otherwise simply not have access.*

The “just buy the DVD” excuse does not work very well in these cases because (1) TV variety shows are not the kind of thing anyone bothers compiling for a DVD and so none are in existence, (2) to wait for the DVD of a TV drama takes quite a while and such DVDs are often accompanied by rather pathetic official subtitles, and (3) one generally likes to know if the show in question is worth the price of a DVD in the first place. (E.g. There is no way I would have spent more than RM300 on the Lord of the Rings DVDs without having actually seen the films.)

Japanese TV channels are not in the habit of licensing their programmes to TV channels abroad, so that’s one option gone too. Hmm, well, we do get the occasional one here on 8TV but that is usually not “current” – it’s usually several months late. Astro provides NHK but that’s more of a news channel than anything. The best TV dramas and variety shows and talk shows air on the other channels.

With such a heavy reliance on filehosts for access to all the media, it was a rather awful shock to fandom the day MU was shut down. I went into work that morning with no clue that anything had happened the night before, and upon logging into YM was greeted by Cy and the news that everyone (in fandom) was going nuts because MU had been shut down. It was actually kind of interesting to see how – as the Earth turned and people around the globe woke up and started their day – there was a sort of staggered shock realisation and response over the day. The Asian fans (or those based in Asia/Oceania) seemed to realise it first, followed by those in Europe, and then in the US itself.

There were several side effects of the MU shutdown but the most irritating effect on fandom was that nearly all the fansubbers** collectively panicked and withdrew into a protective shell. Can’t blame them, really. It’s pretty scary to think you could be arrested. But while I understand that reaction… I’m still annoyed. haha Annoyed at the whole MU shutdown thing, not at the fansubbers themselves, that is.

That whole affair did result in a slew of articles online regarding piracy and/or SOPA. Interesting to read some of them. One pointed out that: “the additional exposure you get through piracy more than compensates for any “lost sales,” especially since the sales you lose are the sales you were never going to make in the first place.” I thought that was a rather good point. If someone is interested enough in your book/music/film, then they will buy it. If they’re not, then it’s likely they never will. Yes, admittedly many of us just go the easy route and download pirated copies so we won’t have to spend money on the real thing. But at the same time, people who are really truly keen on it will almost certainly buy the real thing. (It would also help if DVDs and music CDs and such weren’t so expensive…) For many there is also this preference for spending money only where you know it’ll be worth it. I, for one, am highly unlikely to buy the original DVD of a film I have never seen. I would be far more likely to buy the DVD if I’d already seen the film and found it to my liking. The only reason I own several J-pop albums is because I’d downloaded them, listened to the music, and decided that they were worth buying since I liked most of the tracks on the albums. If I’d never heard the artist’s songs or never even heard the artist’s name before, I’d be hard-pressed to spend on the CD.

The phrase “additional exposure” stuck in my mind because I think Japanese media in particular benefits strongly from the additional exposure that “piracy” gives it. Apart from anime and manga, Japan’s entertainment industry isn’t very good at putting itself out there in the world. The extremely cooperative fan network in cyberspace is pretty much the only thing that makes it known abroad. Seriously. From what I can see, the popularity of Japanese music and Japanese TV dramas hinges almost entirely on the online fanbase and word of mouth. I tumbled into it almost accidentally when one of my friends back in MMU suggested I watch a particularly popular drama, and because we were such a ‘Net-savvy uni, it really didn’t take long to discover the central online sources of dramas and TV shows. Without those sources, I would have known nothing of it and I wouldn’t have cared one bit.

Come to think of it, does the way the J-media fandom functions count as piracy? Pirates, in the ‘classic’, Jack Sparrow-esque sense, take things that do not belong to them to benefit themselves. But what the fans are doing is taking things that do not belong to them and sharing them with other people for no material gain. No decent fan earns money from sharing videos or music. (It is highly frowned upon in fan circles to reap monetary profit from things like that.) There are a few rogue ones who download fan-subtitled videos and attempt to sell them but the number seems low.*** Those would be the ones I call ‘pirates’. Fans who upload files and share them mostly do so out of generosity (or out of a desire to be popular) since so many have no other immediate access to media, but they certainly don’t do so for financial gain.

I’m not following the developments of the whole SOPA thing very closely but even if the bill fails, the MU shutdown alone has rather widespread impact. I do think MU’s shutdown relates more to the fact that it was profiting hugely from the sharing of copyrighted content (especially Hollywood content), but the fact that it was shut down quite suddenly by the US government will – and does – have ripple effects on filesharing in general. It has certainly set the J-media fandom on tenterhooks regarding the fate of other filesharing sites, as well as made the people who share TV shows and dramas all wary at the moment, even though there would be somewhat less fuss over some Japanese variety TV show as compared to a Hollywood blockbuster.

If you try downloading stuff from some other popular filehost these days and it’s oddly slow, I’d hazard a guess that it’s just creaking under the strain of many, many fans around the globe trying to download as much as they can before/in case those sites are shut down too.

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* There is a software called Keyhole TV which allows live streaming of some Japanese TV and radio channels, but it isn’t a good replacement for general filesharing. The image quality is very poor – blurry and comes out at a miniscule 320×240 pixels. It’s better for radio, since no image is required, but the audio quality is iffy and tends to stutter. You also can’t record videos so if you aren’t in a convenient timezone to watch the shows live, you’re out of luck.

** “Fansubbers” are fans who take the time and effort to create subtitles for the videos (for free, naturally) so that those who are not fluent in the language can understand the video. It is quite common for the fan-created subtitles to actually turn out better than official subtitles of dramas and films.

*** You would be amazed at the backlash against the ones who do that within the fandom. Actually, you’d be amazed at the reactions to people who merely disregard the original uploaders’ requests; doesn’t matter whether or not they reap monetary rewards from it. Reupload a fan-subbed video to a streaming website against the wishes of the original fansubber and once the fact is discovered, hundreds of fans will very promptly report you to the administrators of the streaming website and flag your video(s) as being stolen/copyrighted and also maybe bombard you with really really angry, scathing, not-very-nice comments. If by chance they should discover your username in the fan community, I think you’d be immediately blacklisted… Fandom is kind of a self-policing community in that way. 

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