YouTube: I think I'm turning Japanese

Japanese copyright holders demand action! It's all about the cartoons.

Published December 20, 2006 5:31PM (EST)

In 1993, if you lived in the United States but wanted to watch an episode of a hit Japanese anime TV show, you could get on the Internet and, after some huffing and puffing, make contact with geeky fans who avidly traded dubbed videotapes of their favorite shows. The quality of the tapes was often terrible, and if you were lucky enough to find something with English subtitles, the translations were usually risible. But it was strictly an obsessive thing to do. Mass market, it was not.

Today, a heavy dose of the latest anime can be found on the Cartoon Channel, along with some very faithful American imitations. But if you forgot to set your TiVo, you're still OK. Just now, I logged on to YouTube and searched for "Naruto" -- a hit Japanese cartoon about ninja teenagers that has spawned the bestselling graphic novel series in the United States. There were 113,718 YouTube videos with the word "Naruto" in their title. That's a lot of anime, and you could easily spend the rest of your life doing nothing but watching it. The quality is often terrible, but heck, the price is right. And it's so easy.

YouTube and Japan are in the news today, because the video-sharing service announced it was responding to complaints of copyright infringement from the Japan Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers. The response? YouTube has agreed to post warnings about illegal uploads in Japanese. Oh yes, that will solve the problem.

None of the stories I read mentioned that what this conflict must be at least partially about is the astounding global appetite for Japanese cartoons. Some of the reporting even seemed to imply that was a problem of copyright infringement in Japan, as if it was a somehow localized concern. Nothing could be further from the truth. Japanese animation is an incredibly successful global cultural commodity. And if there is one law about culture that the Internet has engraved in digital stone, it is this: Popularity begets copyright infringement.

An AP story declares that "most videos posted on YouTube are homemade." Hmm. Does that include splicing together scenes from a bunch of different copyrighted cartoons and dubbing it with a pop song that is also copyrighted? I'm thinking right now of one of the first videos returned for a search on YouTube for "Japanese anime": a montage of animated scenes set to the song "Baby Got Back." (You can go looking for that one yourself if you want to see it, because How the World Works cannot condone direct links to Japanese soft porn that violates the copyright laws of at least two different countries. My children have started reading this blog!)

YouTube's user agreement talks tough about protecting intellectual property, but that's the biggest joke of all. YouTube is the greatest device yet invented for violating copyright laws. Posting notices warning that uploads of copyrighted material are illegal will do little to stop the practice. To really comply with copyright laws would end the party.

But that would be kind of dumb also. I can guarantee you that the people who are uploading anime to the Net are the same people who are the biggest purchasers of Japanese graphic novels, and, of course, the Japanese toys -- the Transformers, the Gundam robots, the Pokemon cards -- that were the original reason for so many anime shows to begin with. Gasp -- there are more than 8,000 YouTube videos that have "Yu-Gi-Oh" in their title! Most likely, every single one is an act of copyright violation. And every single one of them is also an advertisement for Yu-Gi-Oh cards, which is why there is a Yu-Gi-Oh TV show in the first place.

The first impulse, when one sees YouTube tangling with Japanese rights holders is to think, gosh, what a mess -- won't every country make a similar claim? How can YouTube, even with Google's lawyers defending it with all their might, and cutting deals with media companies left and right, cope with a global village of outraged copyright owners? But isn't the explosion of infringement really just a ratification of the global cultural power and vitality of Japan's premium pop-cultural export?

While you're mulling that over, you can divert yourself by listening, and watching, Japanese pop sensations Puffy AmiYumi perform the theme song to "Teen Titans." And ask yourself: Is that an advertisement, or a crime?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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