While downloading copyright-infringing movies and music is illegal in Japan, downloading static images such as manga is not. According to local reports, the Agency for Cultural Affairs intends to criminalize the practice, with jail sentences of up to two years and fines of two million yen (US$17, 729)
While uploading infringing content is generally considered illegal in many countries around the world, downloading and streaming can be different matters.
Specifically outlawed in the EU, laws on streaming are less obvious in other regions due to a lack of clarification and relevant test cases. In some countries, downloading is often considered to sit in a legal gray area due to private copying exceptions and blank media levies. In Japan, there’s a significant loophole for some content.
While downloading music and movies is illegal, Japan’s Copyright Act doesn’t offer the same protection for still images, meaning that photographs and the country’s treasured manga material can be obtained at will.
However, according to Mainichi sources familiar with government planning, changes are already in the pipeline. The Agency for Cultural Affairs is reportedly mulling the criminalization of copyrighted image downloading, when the downloader knows that the content they’re obtaining is pirated.
In common with a law introduced in 2012, penalties for downloading manga and other static images could be as steep as two years in prison with fines of up to two million yen (US$17,729) plus the potential for damages awards.
Interestingly, it’s claimed that the new rules will apply to people who download images to their devices but not to those who simply view images on piracy sites. The complication here is that for images to be viewed on a device, they have to be downloaded, so even people who view sites are technically downloading pirated images.
There are similar arguments made for and against the legality of streaming video in some regions, with some believing that streaming is different to downloading since a copy isn’t retained. However, content still has to be presented to a device in order for it to be viewed, so it could be argued that a copy is being downloaded.
According to the unnamed sources, the new restrictions are being incorporated into draft revisions of the Copyright Act by a panel of the copyright subcommittee of the Council for Cultural Affairs. Indications suggest that the draft will be made available for public comments.
Laws that attempt to criminalize downloading are often seen as somewhat ineffective. While there is always the message of deterrence, proving that someone has downloaded copyright-infringing manga, for example, is a difficult task.
While illegal uploads (using BitTorrent, for example) are very easy to track, downloads from the kinds of hosting or linking sites that tend to offer manga are not, so it’s far from clear how anyone could be prosecuted, without gaining access to private machines and pirated content collections.
That being said, Japan intends to criminalize platforms too. In October 2018 it was revealed that operators of sites that link to copyright-infringing content could face prison terms of up to five years if they knowingly link to pirated content and refuse to respond to takedowns requests.