According to a new Japanese law that takes effect today, anyone who pirates music or films can be handed up to a two-year jail sentence and fines of up to 2 million yen (~$25,700). But it’s uploaders of illegal content that are getting the harshest treatment; under the law, those who make copyrighted works available can be sentenced to up to ten years in jail and given fines of up to 10 million yen.
Laws against downloading copyrighted content have been on Japanese books since 2010, but the new punishment guidelines — which make illegal downloading a criminal act — have only gone into effect starting today. Japanese legislators voted on the changes in June with the support of the Recording Industry Association of Japan, despite opposition from the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations, a group representing lawyers, which said that making a formerly civil issue into a criminal one is reckless.
“Treating personal activities with criminal punishments must be done very cautiously, and the property damage caused by individual illegal downloads by private individuals is highly insignificant,” the JFBA said.
The RIAJ — along with the RIAA, MPAA, and the rest — argue that stricter laws will help boost the music downloading market, which it says declined 16% in Japan in 2011. The RIAJ touts South Korea, whose global market ranking for music downloading went from 23rd to 11th after South Korea enacted piracy laws in 2007. Whether that’s applicable to Japan, or whether cracking down on piracy even deserves the majority of the credit for the boost at all (a better shopping experience, deeper libraries, and better advertising would help as well) is up for debate, as has long been debated in the U.S. copyright battle.
But the fact that Japan has criminalized sharing and downloading files is a major change. Currently, the RIAA, MPAA, and the companies they represent can and do sue infringers, a rather obtuse process that often ends ludicrously, like when a mother was handed $222,000 in charges for 24 songs. But keeping proceedings in the civil courts means that it’s still the RIAA et al versus copyright infringers, even if industry lobbyists do get lawmakers to make things easier for them. By making illegal downloading a criminal matter in Japan, industry advocates have managed to get the full weight of the legal system on their side; in essence, the RIAJ now has the investigative power of the police, which was ostensibly a neutral party before, actively on its side by law.
Does that mean American authorities will soon have busting copyright infringers added to their job descriptions? Considering how much support the industry has managed to stir up in U.S. legislature, the new laws in Japan could prove to be a model if they succeed. That, however, is very much still a question. We’ll have to wait for the first person to be handed a multi-year prison sentence for downloading a movie to find out.
Illustration by Shintaro Kago for Vice
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.