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Sunday September 2, 2007

Anime fans revolt

An anime distributor in Singapore incurs the wrath of Netizens over an anti-piracy crackdown.


Burst Angel
NETIZENS are waging a high-tech war against Odex, Singapore’s main anime distributor. 

Wikipedia entries on Odex, for instance, have been turned into attacks on the Singaporean firm, which has taken flak from the online world after news spread that it was going after people who downloaded anime illegally.  

Some entries talk of how Odex goes around threatening to throw nine-year-olds in jail if they do not pay it S$3,000 (about RM6,800).  

Others tell tall tales of how those who could not pay the company were made to borrow from them at an exorbitant interest rate of 10%.  

Odex has denied both allegations. Its spokesman said it is monitoring the situation.  

The firm recently obtained court orders which force Singaporean Internet providers SingNet and StarHub to reveal the names of those who downloaded anime illegally.  

However, on Aug 23, the judge in the case against Pacific Internet (PacNet) did not grant a similar order.  

Gundam Seed Destiny
But the smear campaign has gone on unabated and things have become so bad that one of Wikipedia’s editors was compelled, in an Aug 14 entry, to tick off these “contributors” and remind them to “stick to facts and try to balance them”. Some of the more offensive posts have been taken down.  

Popular websites such as Tomorrow.sg have also received many submissions – almost all of which had bad things to say about Odex, said James Seng, one of the site’s founders.  

The outpouring of rage against the anime distributor, say Internet industry observers, is the clearest indication of how tech-savvy communities are wising up to the Internet’s power as a propaganda tool.  

Seng noted that the community Odex had targeted in its piracy crackdown was a very tech-savvy one, and so was able to employ many Internet propaganda techniques not used before.  

These tactics include the Wikipedia edits and even uploading satirical videos making fun of Odex on video-sharing site YouTube.  

Previously, upset Netizens contented themselves with whining on online forums. The furthest they went was to start an online petition occasionally.  

Psychologist Daniel Koh said that online lynch mobs were more likely to hit out at anyone who appeared to be attacking their cause as they felt a “sense of loyalty” with others in the community.  

The sense of anonymity in an online world also lent them more courage in lashing out, he added.  

Fullmetal Alchemist
But even as most simply go online to slam Odex, some users have been using the Internet in positive ways, Seng pointed out.  

He said these include digging up details of what the previously little-known company does, putting together repositories of copyright law-related information in Singapore and around the world, and collecting donations for those hit by the crackdown.  

One was even able to unearth a damning post by an Odex director gloating about his campaign, for which he has had to apologise.  

In fact, said a veteran public relations practitioner, the anti-Odex camp has probably “won the propaganda battle”.  

She declined to give her name because “what if they come after me?” 

She was referring to how some online users had threatened Odex staff with physical harm and even posted online personal information such as the home addresses of the people they believe are responsible for the crackdown.  

All said and done, though, communities need to temper their behaviour and pitch their points of view online ethically without going overboard by lying or making personal attacks.  

This is easier said than done, said Koh, especially when sentiments are running high, as is the case now.  

He said that when this happens, “people (will) act irrationally” to the point that they get carried away and are willing to do anything to advance their cause.  

Just take “Skurai”, who had no qualms suggesting “stunts” that downloaders can pull to milk donations and sympathy from the public and hopefully force Odex to end its crackdown.  

He wrote: “Ask around. Wait for someone poor to kena sue. Then write to The New Paper or The Straits Times, get a sad story from it.”  

But lawyers warn that those who post wild allegations online could land in trouble.  

Mark Lim, director of law firm Tan Peng Chin LLC, said: “If the allegations are untrue, and if they are able to obtain a court order to get the subscriber’s information from their ISP, Odex can sue for defamation.” 

In a recent AP report, Odex director Stephen Sing said the company had seen a drop of 60%-70% in sales in the past two years, largely due to an increase in downloads. 

Odex versus Internet providers 

Earlier last month, Odex successfully forced SingNet and StarHub to disclose the names of subscribers allegedly downloading such anime.  

District Judge Ernest Lau’s Aug 23 ruling for PacNet thus came as a surprise given Odex’s earlier successes in court.  

In May, Odex, which distributes popular anime like Gundam and Inuyasha in Singapore, launched what would become the city state’s largest reported crackdown on illegal downloads. 

Its first move was to send letters to 17 SingNet users accusing them of illegally downloading anime and demanding a settlement of between S$3,000 and S$5,000 (about RM6,800 and RM11,300).  

Downloaders using other Internet service providers had initially thought that only SingNet users were targeted.  

But later, it was disclosed that Odex had also obtained a court order to force StarHub to reveal the names of hundreds more alleged downloaders. 

Odex is also demanding the names of up to 1,000 PacNet downloaders. 

A trickle of online complaints about the firm soon escalated into death threats and an avalanche of vitriolic forum posts criticising Odex. 

The mood was not helped when Sing was found to have made disparaging remarks about the alleged illegal downloaders who had received legal letters from the firm. 

PacNet ruling 

Judge Lau ruled that Odex had failed on two counts.  

Only copyright owners – that is, the studios that made the anime – or an “exclusive licensee” for the anime being downloaded, can take legal action under the Singapore Copyright Act.  

Odex is a sub-licensee and had letters from rights owners authorising it to take action on their behalf, but the firm was neither a copyright owner nor an “exclusive licensee”. An exclusive licensee has the sole right to distribute a product in a certain market.  

Judge Lau added that he was also not wholly satisfied with Odex’s explanation of how it identified the downloaders.  

Other district judges do not necessarily have to follow Judge Lau’s ruling. Different judges ruled on the cases against SingNet and StarHub. 

But if Odex appeals to the High Court – it is considering this – and Judge Lau’s ruling is upheld, all future rulings will have to meet the sort of standard of proof required to get an Anton Piller order. (An Anton Piller order allows the plaintiff to enter someone else’s premises, halt all activities, make a search – for days if necessary – and then seize all incriminating evidence found.)  

The ruling, said corporate counsel and Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong, could make it “cumbersome and expensive, although not impossible”, for rights owners, and “especially those overseas”, to take legal action against downloaders. – The Straits Times, Singapore / Asia News Network  

  • What do you think of this whole saga triggered by Odex’s actions? E-mail your opinions to otaku@thestar.com.my.

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