The Japanese government is adding a new weapon in its fight against online anime (and other video) piracy: human eyes.
Previously, Japan's Ministry of Trade, Economy, and Industry (METI) was solely reliant on computer software to spot bootlegged online content, but as some material slips through these monitoring systems, it's now enlisted the help of human anti-piracy experts. Their job will be to hunt out and monitor the forums and sites where material is uploaded and shared illegally.
"If you're thinking about it from the industry and government's point of view, the more different sets of eyes you have on piracy, the better off you are," Rayna Denison, a senior lecturer and researcher on Japanese creative industries at the University of East Anglia, told me over the phone.
Denison explained that whereas anti-piracy search engines and algorithms could be trained to sift through and spot specific images, they are still unable to perform intuitive tasks and adapt as quickly to new situations as humans.
Anime and manga have long been classed as one of Japan's most important cultural, economy-boosting exports. The damage caused by the spread of online content is far from small; it's estimated to be as much as 2 trillion yen ($20 billion).
In July 2014, the government founded the Manga-Anime Guardians Project, an online campaign aimed both at directing consumers to official sources and stamping out illegal content online on 580 sites. This campaign saw the Japanese government team up with the Content Overseas Distribution Association (CODA) and 15 anime producers in a bid to wipe out the spread of bootlegged content.
"The addition of human intelligence is just one more tool that industry can use to protect copyright"
While Denison said that the Japanese government's continued desire to clamp down on piracy demonstrated the soft power value of Japan's anime industry, she also said that viewing methods had changed considerably over recent years.
"If you're looking at this move from a fan perspective, the last few years have seen the rise of free sites that fans can use legally to watch anime, so the necessity for piracy has lessened," she said. She pointed to sites like Crunchyroll that started off as a fansite dedicated to bootlegged content until it struck a deal with TV Tokyo in the mid-2000s, allowing the site to stream anime content legally. This, however, hasn't made piracy go away.
Ultimately, the issue is more complex. Fans who subtitle and distribute content often do so as they feel they are promoting Japanese culture abroad, or simply providing more eloquent translations. However, from the official point of view, bootlegged copies represent the loss of valuable overseas profits that cause damage to the anime industry and Japan's economy as a whole, and the government is diversifying its defence mechanisms.
"The addition of human intelligence is just one more tool that industry can use to protect copyright," said Denison. "I imagine fans will react quite negatively to it; I suspect that's about the culture around piracy, because fans would be resistant to the idea of being watched at all."
Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.