So far, the debate over file sharing services, copyrighted music, and copy protected music has been largely restricted to the United States. Napster originated in the United States, most of its descendants have originated in the United States, and most of the waves that it created within the intellectual property industry have been felt in the United States. But in just the last couple of months, that has changed. In January, the Recording Industry Association of Japan (RIAJ) and similar Japanese intellectual property groups took notice of a Japanese file sharing program that had only been around since November and have since made up for nearly two years of controversy, almost reaching the current state of the debate in the United States (the birthplace of this ridiculous mess) in just over sixty days.
The story of the current controversy over copyrighted music in Japan began with an announcement from the RIAJ on January 18th stating that their CD sales had declined for a third year in a row due to the combination of young people spending their money on other things (cellphones and their related services and merchandise) and an increase in music piracy (it's worth noting that the article makes no mention of Japan's deep recession, which The Economist's unlinkable print version indicates is nearing the point of bank runs, bank collapses, and possibly crossing the line between recession and depression). On January 29th, this was used to go after the "File Rogue" file sharing service, which seems to be the Japanese equivalent to Napster - a big, popular, centralized file sharing service that doesn't yet have a lot of competition. In that case, the Japan Society of Rights for Authors, Composers and Publishers (Japanese language) and nineteen record companies are asking for a ruling barring MMO Japan Ltd., the makers of File Rogue, from making any of their copyrighted songs available digitally, as well as awarding ¥151m ($1.16m USD) in damages at 5% annual interest, ¥28m ($216,000 USD) per month from March 1st, 2002 that the files are still being transmitted, and the cost of the legal fees of JASRAC and the nineteen companies, according to the story from the RIAJ. (It should also be noted that, though those sums seem very small in comparison to the legal damages awarded in other countries, they are actually quite large for Japan. Legal damages are usually much, much smaller in Japan than they are in other countries because the Japanese have effectively managed to keep their civil court system from getting out of hand and becoming a lottery or a method for ruining the lives of others.)
That case is still pending, but these events have led to a further, and possibly more important development. On March 13th, record company Avex Inc., a major player in the Japanese record industry, released their first copyrighted CD, the CD single "Every Heart" by Korean female singer BoA (best known in native English speaking countries for singing "Duvet", the opening theme to the anime series "serial experiments lain"). It is protected with the now infamous Cactus Data Shield technology from the Israeli security company Midbar Tech, and, according to C|Net, is labelled as a copy protected disc. The Asahi Shimbun article claims that it will play on any computer running Windows (but certainly not Macintosh, Linux, or any other OS) and simply won't allow the user to save any of the files on it, but the C|Net article claims that on each disc, some songs will play and some won't, and it seems like the few that will play will be able to be saved. But no matter what the truth is about whether or not the CDs can be played in a Windows machine, one thing that is definite is that this is not just a trial test. "Every Heart" is a single, but it will be followed on March 20th by Do As Infinity's greatest hits album "Do the Best", as well as female vocalist Kumi Koda's new album "Affection" in the same week. Granted, they aren't the absolute biggest signs of faith in copy protection that Avex could make, but they're much bigger signs of faith than the ones that BMG made in Finland and Germany. It seems that, barring any major action from Philips Electronics (the holder of the patents on CD technology) or a serious defect in the discs, copy protection is on its way to making a major foothold in Japan.
But what does this mean for the rest of the world? If it succeeds, it could mean that CD copy protection could join the ranks of DVD Region Coding and Macrovision as a form of intellectual property control that is widely accepted by the average person around the world, especially if it gains some ground in a technologically educated and inclined country like Japan, which also happens to be the second largest economy in the world. Legally, it could also mean a much tougher fight for groups in the vein of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which would be faced with a second large battleground on which they must battle copy protection (I'm not saying that the EFF would be involved, but certainly groups and people that share their goals). It also may mean a lot of frustration for the average Japanese consumer that is turned away from legally ripping his MP3s to his computer or illegally downloading music from the internet.
One effect of this is definite, though, and that's the total lack of effect on the skilled rippers and the legion of leechers that depend on them. A single search for "BoA" and "Every Heart" on the file sharing service WinMX reveals 182 MP3s, and this is from a copy protected CD single for an internationally obscure Korean singer. I'll leave you to decide what you think that, and all the rest of this, means for everyone else involved.