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Watch A YouTube Video, Go To Jail

An updated Japanese law puts sharp teeth on that country’s laws against unauthorized downloading copyrighted material. The law, which goes into effect today, imposes harsh penalties for downloading just one file – and potentially even watching an unauthorized YouTube video. No, this isn’t another dystopian sci-fi film about the land of the rising sun. This is reality in a country facing pressure from its own recording industry. 

The new law calls for two years in prison or fines of up to 2 million yen, or about $26,000, for unauthorized downloading. While this activity has been illegal since 2010, Japan has not previously enforced the restrictions, according to BBC News

If the country enforces the new rule aggressively, there could be serious consequences for a society that is the second largest music market in the world behind the United States. The Recording Industry Association of Japan claims that only 10% of Japan’s downloads are legal. In 2010, a study by that organization reported 4.36 billion illegal files were downloaded. That amounts to billions of ripped and pirated songs, and possibly millions of offenders ripe for prosecution. And YouTube is theoretically illegal now, because every time an unauthorized clip plays, the viewer’s computer stores a temporary file in its hard drive cache.

Japan’s law, called “neighboring rights,” is intended to protect intellectual property. Secondary fees for content recreation (such as burning and sharing music) are allowed if the copyright holder is compensated. 

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations, a legal professional group, tried in vain to make the matter a civil rather than criminal issue, calling it a “property damage issue.” But with pressure from Sony and other major companies, the argument failed to sway lawmakers. Neither did protests in July from groups of Japanese in Anonymous masks. 

Japan is the latest nation to crack down on illegal downloads, following the U.S. hits on Megaupload and Demonoid last month. But with such harsh penalties, and the long reaching implications for a nation that has historically downloaded more unauthorized files more than any but America, will this work? And can the government possibly enforce a law that is likely to effect so many?

Photo by Philippe Put

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