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Japan gov't to crack down on 'leech sites' linking to pirated manga, movies

TOKYO -- The Agency for Cultural Affairs is set to ban so-called "leech sites" that lead internet users to websites offering bootlegged materials such as manga and movies, and punish their operators with prison terms, according to people familiar with the decision.

The agency's move is based on a tentative recommendation in September from its chief's advisory panel that leech sites carrying hyperlinks to pirated materials can be considered to be violating copyrights and causing serious economic damage to copyright holders.

The agency plans to submit relevant revisions to the Copyright Act to the next ordinary session of the Diet in 2019.

According to the plans based on the draft recommendation from a subcommittee of the agency's Council for Cultural Affairs, the legal changes will enable copyright holders to seek a ban on hyperlinks to bootleg materials, as well as on site operators that neglect to remove the links. Such prohibitions will only be applied in cases where the operators know, or are perceived to be in a position to know, that the links lead to pirated material.

Regarding punishment, some members of the subcommittee have proposed that up to three to five years of imprisonment is necessary to prevent wrongdoing.

A government panel of experts is considering legalizing blocking of websites hosting pirated materials so that internet users will not be able to access them.

In October last year, a group of people running one of the largest leech sites in Japan, "Haruka Yumeno Ato," were arrested on suspicion of copyright violations by a joint investigation team of nine prefectures including Osaka in western Japan. The leech site itself is not illegal under the current law, but police were able to crack down on it because the group was also involved in building bootleg websites linked to their site.

The Yumeno Ato site is estimated to have caused some 73.1 billion yen in damage through lost sales of copyrighted titles, according to the Association of Copyright for Computer Software. Publishers and copyright holders worry that pirated materials available online for free will further decrease magazine and book circulation, and threaten the survival of related industries.

"The production cycle will collapse as manga artists will be unable to receive the fruits of their creations," warned an official of the Shuppan Koho Center, a public relations body made up of major Japanese publishers.

High estimates of annual losses due to leech site links to pirated manga, anime, movies and music run into the hundreds of billions of yen. However, even the government does not know how many such sites exist.

Experts say banning leech sites as well as websites hosting pirated materials is needed to prevent copyright damage. In addition, careful discussions on countermeasures aimed at such sites are important to strike a balance between regulation and protecting freedom of expression.

(Japanese original by Takuya Izawa, City News Department)

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