JAPANESE animation movies ('anime') have taken the teenage world by storm. For years now, fans in Japan have been recording anime off domestic television and uploading the movies to the Internet for fans elsewhere - in the United States, say, - to download and subtitle them in English.
In Singapore, thousands of youngsters also benefit - illegally, conventional wisdom would say.
Yet, interestingly, it was only in December 2004 that, for the first time, a Japanese firm asked a fan site to take down its anime. Even that remains one of the rare instances in which anime firms have gone after the fans.
Recently, US anime distributors have also begun to make noises about going after illegal downloading by fans.
If this heralds a change in the industry's business model - to go after fans - it may not be most optimal one to pursue.
Animation is the preferred method of story telling in Japan as there are few big budget film studios there. The anime that these studios crank out tend to contain uniquely big-eyed characters, robotcentric themes and lots of violence and sex.
Most anime studios are small setups without the money to sue at home or abroad. They tend to depend on small TV contracts or straight-toDVD deals. So they have - up to now - generally handled piracy by cutting DVD prices sharply instead.
Moreover, Japan has only 20,000 lawyers and no discovery procedures, so all evidence is examined in court, which makes litigation there very cumbersome and costly.
Thus anime firms have tended to leave undisturbed not just fans who tape anime off Japanese TV but also 'fan-subs' - foreign fans who add subtitles in English to the digital copies, making it accessible to more people the world over.
The existence of an anime market outside Japan means that fans do buy the licensed DVDs when they become available as these come with better audio-visual quality and have extras like out-takes or may even be dubbed in English.
In practice, once the originals with official subtitling or dubbing in English can be purchased, most fan-subs take down the pirated movies from their sites, which they then use to help promote the sales of the original DVDs. Once this happens, fans around the world obviously won't be able to access them online any more and would have to buy the DVDs.
Thus far then, anime firms have rarely resorted to legal action against downloaders, usually regarding fan activity instead as helping to promote interest in their product.
In fact, some even work with fan clubs to organise fan conventions and engage them online at fan sites and company blogs, for example.
It is this business model that has transformed anime (as well as manga or Japanese comics, the print counterpart of anime) from a niche genre into US mainstream culture. In 2003, the Spirited Away anime even won the coveted Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
In Singapore, anime can be seen late at night on the Central channel. But these shows are dated, so local fans download the newest ones that come with fan subtitling.
Oddly, this may not necessarily be illegal.
Under Singapore's law, copying is permitted for educational and news reporting purposes (as well as other specified ones). But only an unimaginative reading of the law would conclude anime downloading is clearly illegal.
A 2004 amendment to the copyright law here introduced a new, open-ended exception to make it possible for copying - in whole or part - to be construed as fair use depending on five factors.
First, is the work copied creative in nature or not (like a phone directory)? Secondly, how much is copied? Thirdly, is the copying for profit?
Clearly, anime is creative work and fans copy the whole work, but they don't do it for profit. Even Article 38 of Japan's own copyright law allows parties to 'distribute by wire a work already broadcast for non-profit purposes'.
Fourthly, can the work be obtained within a reasonable time at an ordinary commercial price? The most popular anime titles take about six to eight months to be released here on VCDs or DVDs but they are now competitively priced when they do appear here.
The fifth and final consideration is the effect of copying upon the work's potential market here. That is, the anime firm must show that future harm is very likely, not that actual harm has occurred. Local fans say they do go online to buy anime DVDs from foreign distributors. US experience suggests that this is not all empty talk.
Fan activity is more akin to taping a show from TV than pirates doing it off a cinema screen. Clearly, taping movies off TV has not led to pervasive and huge home libraries and history shows that sales of movies on tape and DVD have not been impacted by the video cassette recorder.
The upshot: Fan activities could well be building a market for anime here.
Of course, an economist would have to demonstrate this to be empirically true and a lawyer fight it out in court to see if this does come under the open-ended exception.
In fact, Parliament added this open-ended exception for fair use only in 2004. This came in the face of US demands during negotiations for the bilateral free trade agreement that we strengthen our intellectual property regime, said law professor Burton Ong of the National University of Singapore.
To harmonise Singapore law with US law which carried such an exception, it was decided to incorporate it in our Copyright Act. If it exists to protect the American consumer, now it does the same for the Singapore consumer. All that now remains is to test in court how far this exception holds, Asst Prof Ong said.
A court case would see the five factors weighed in regard to anime fan activity. The conclusion reached one way or the other in such a face-off could well establish where the lines of our copyright law actually fall.