Friday, June 12, 2009

:anime: The FUNimation "Leaky Stream" Fiasco

I originally wasn't going to comment on this until more of the facts came in, but I think there has been enough disseminated to draw an overall view of opinion on. Should there be anymore major developments, I'll comment on them further.

As many know, FUNimation has been going through a series of major complications and setbacks to its streaming anime campaign as of late. The crux of the issue has settled primarily on the company's ill-secured and ill-planned method of preparing their video files for same-day streaming (aka "simulcast"). The first problem surfaced on May 30 with One Piece's then most-recent episode, #403, which was to be part of the company's effort to simulcast the series as it aired in Japan, being accessed and distributed onto torrent sites by someone hours before it was to be aired there. This act would lead to FUNimation and Toei Animation and its other partners to cancel the simulcast "for the immediate future" on all of the sites it was set to be on. Additionally, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, another high-profile title, was pulled from FUNimation's site, until better security was implemented. The second problem arose shortly after on June 3 when not only a pre-broadcast episode of Phantom ~Requiem for the Phantom~ was leaked, but also an episode of FMA:B, which, while having already aired in Japan, had yet to appear on their video site at its scheduled time. With these developments, FUNimation's video site was shut down soon after for "maintenance".

Though the perpetrator(s) behind the leaks should be held responsible, the bulk of the blame lays squarely on FUNimation's lofty shoulders. The fact that the leaked videos were on a publicly-accessible server before their post time with apparently little to no security showed a great deal of naivety on their part, especially in this age of smarmy, defiant groups/individuals who torrent video files from legal streaming sites such as theirs and Crunchyroll, and thumb their noses at the "evil, greedy R1 companies".

To this end, FUNimation's streaming videos have been all too easy to obtain and redistribute as downloadable video files. I won't go into specifics (if you could even call them that...), but before this debacle began, I was able to obtain the exact file of a show's episode I was watching on their site with no difficulty at all. No hacking, no special access codes, no nifty file- or folder-searching through their site, no complex programs, nothing of the sort--I just employed a simple method I normally use whenever I want to save a particular video clip from a streaming site, such as an OP/ED, for my computer and iPod. I did this out of curiosity to see if it would work on FUNimation's site and to see how good its security was. As I quickly found out, it was far easier than some of the most popular streaming sites out there. Proactive steps against redistribution were nonexistent, so it was of little surprise to see how people were able get them, much less figure out which video was which, as it was clearly labeled. Even if the stream was not active yet, I imagine it shouldn't have been that difficult to obtain the source file if one figured out how to access its location, based on the giveaway names alone.

It is perhaps equally as easy to pounce on FUNimation and deride them for their conduct. Naivety and a degree of laziness no doubt played a role, as precautions should have been in place from the beginning, considering the environment. It is further damning when episodes of Phantom were noted to have been leaked before the situation reached critical and an episode of FMA:B was leaked after security measures were apparently enacted. If they knew of the proliferation--and they admitted so themselves--then why did they not do something immediately to remedy it, especially with the numerous ramifications? All of this taken into consideration, that does not let the proliferators themselves off of the hook. Due to their selfish, benign actions, whatever the reason or fame/infamy they wanted to achieve, they willingly downloaded and redistributed the videos and cost everyone else the opportunity to enjoy a service presented out of goodwill and some hard work behind-the-scenes. It was an unnecessary and dumb act, and if someone was doing it to "be first", then that makes it that much more so.

The absolute ramifications are, at this time, unknown, but the possibilities look quite dire. Japanese companies have only but within the last year started increasing their focus towards international audiences in terms of simulcasting and digital distribution. Yet, if an incident where an episode that was supposed to be aired in Japan first was shown/distributed elsewhere beforehand without authorization, then the leaps in progress made will be reversed and hard to gain back.

However, in spite of the complications, there are a few positives that can be eked out. First, the issue is localized around a sole distributor and not a whole video site (i.e. YouTube, Hulu, Joost). Yes, that distributor is the largest in North America and the most active in its digital distro field, but the damage is at least centralized to a single entity who doesn't specialize in streaming and is relatively new at handling it on their own. One could chalk it up to inexperience and may avoid operating through that specific channel again, but if the problem rested with a video site like the ones described earlier or Crunchyroll, the impact would be highly devastating. For a site that handles properties from many different partners, a leak of a scheduled video could result in a "domino effect" in dropped deals and loss of business and confidence. It would be expected that such a dedicated service would have better knowledge of handling videos and proper security measures to avoid that, so a failure on that front would absolutely set everything back, perhaps permanently.

A second positive is that the problem did not create such an effect here, nor did it elicit knee-jerk reactions on the part of the other Japanese content providers. The worse that has come out of this ordeal (thus far) is the cancellation of One Piece's simulcast and webcast. It is regrettable, yes, but Toei (who looks to be the main one who pulled the plug) didn't go and remove Galaxy Express 999, Fist of the North Star, Pretty Cure, or any of their other shows elsewhere as a result. It could have been done easily and with understanding, but it never occurred and other companies hadn't stop their own simulcasts or other streams out of fear. With that, it is reassuring that there is still faith in the movement, but stronger provisions have to be in place to ensure that leaks, as well as the unauthorized redistribution of video files, cease and never reoccur again.

This brings about the third positive to come out of this: the quick action taken by FUNimation in addressing the issues and acknowledging its own shortcomings and mistakes. Their actual handling of them has not been smooth or fool-proof, but they have been moving in the right direction as of late by shutting down their entire video site to fix and better secure it. The interview with ANN was a big plus in terms of public relations, as it showed that they were getting on it and taking the matter seriously. It came after a few days of silence and massive fan criticism, but afterward, there was some relief and even praise for their openness on the problems. The move towards extra security was not excluded to the distributor only, as CR also appears to be improving theirs, with a recent deal with deal with media management company Akamai, whose services will be used in providing top security, as well as improving video quality and delivery.

The leaks and too-easily-accessible videos have proven to be digital distribution's biggest hurdles, with FUNimation's issues being its first real test in viability and durability. While it could have been avoided, it is now important that it those problems are tackled and prevented from happening again. I expected that something like this would arise eventually, given the aggressive nature of fansubbing, wanting everything "now", and parts of the fandom being unkind to R1 or the industry as a whole. Nevertheless, there are some good things to be taken out of this experience that will undoubtedly bolster the digital distro movement from this time forward, as efforts are moving in the right direction. Even through all of this, one caveat should be dispensed, as a second major compromise may prove to entail more far-reaching and destructive consequences than one may realize...

UPDATE [06.14.05] - FUNimation's video site is now back up (but still under maintenance). Though FMA:B, Phantom, and the Toei titles from before are still available, One Piece remains absent.

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