Sunday September 9, 2007
Stories by CHUA HIAN HOU
A director of the Singaporean company Odex speaks about its controversial move to prosecute anime downloaders.
STEPHEN Sing and Peter Go – both self-proclaimed otaku, slang for an obsessive anime fan – started out with a dream of importing Japanese cartoons for fellow fans.
The dream has become something of a nightmare with the duo and their company Odex the target of an online hate campaign.
Sing and Go, both 35 and married with children, met as classmates while studying business administration at the National University of Singapore. They quickly bonded over their passion for anime.
After graduating in 1996, they started work at Go’s family business, a trading firm by the name of Odex. The company was then involved in a range of businesses, from ostrich farming to selling video games.
The duo started by importing and selling anime from Hong Kong and Taiwan licensees at the company’s games retail arm called Games Mart.
Games Mart was later raided by the police for peddling counterfeit game accessories such as joysticks in 1999 and closed down in 2000.
Sing said neither he nor Go was implicated or called up by the police to assist in their investigations in that case, since the games retail department was operated as a separate entity from the anime business.
At first the answer was no but after a year of talks, Odex received the licence to make and sell Gundam in Singapore, said Go, Odex’s managing director and the person in charge of purchasing.
But it was another 10 months of figuring out what “video mastering” and “subtitling” were all about, said Sing, before Odex launched its first product, Gundam 0083.
All 2,000 sets sold out.
Encouraged by the response, Odex approached other studios for licences to make and sell their anime here.
Over the next few years, the firm would grow from retailer to distributor, an “unplanned but natural progression”, noted Sing.
In 2001, it knocked on StarHub’s door to ask if the pay-TV operator would be interested in screening anime in the city-state.
It said yes, provided the anime was dubbed in Mandarin.
Odex had no expertise in dubbing, but the firm decided that this was a business worth expanding into and invested in studios and audio recording equipment.
Today, it provides Mandarin-dubbed anime to StarHub, English-dubbed anime to MediaCorp’s Arts Central and, starting last year, Malay-dubbed anime to Malaysian broadcasters.
Currently, 85% of Odex’s annual revenue, which was “over S$1mil (RM2.3mil) in 2005”, comes from post-production, and the rest from selling anime to video retailers here, said Sing.
It employs “20-odd” staff members at its Anson Road office in Singapore, many of whom are just as mad about anime.
Yet, even as its stock with the anime studios grew, local retail sales were falling, something Go blames on “fansubs” or fan-subtitled anime. (Fans add English subtitles to the anime they record off Japanese television and post online for non-Japanese-speaking fans to enjoy.)
In the early days of the Internet, fansub creators had an honour system to ensure fansubs would not hurt the anime industry. When legitimate retail products were released, fansubs were taken down.
But the honour system fell apart when new peer-to-peer download systems such as BitTorrent became available.
Anime, once uploaded, stayed online indefinitely and “freeloaders” today far outstrip the genuine anime fans who support the anime industry, said Go.
“As anime lovers ourselves, we don’t mind if you don’t buy Odex products, but we really hate ‘freeloaders’ as they give nothing back to the industry,” said Sing.
He claimed this was a common sentiment shared by many in the industry, especially the smaller anime studios that depend heavily on video sales because their anime is too niche to attract much in the way of merchandising revenue.
In March, Odex sold a revolutionary idea to its Japanese business partners: A copy-protected video-on-demand (VOD) service to sell anime online.
It took a while to get enough players on board – many were concerned that someone would crack the anime’s copy protection, with the end result being better quality pirated anime online.
Many were also sceptical that a legitimate download service would work with “free” pirated anime so widely available.
This is partly why Odex launched its controversial anti-piracy crackdown.
Go said: “We warned anime bloggers, we warned anime fan clubs in schools, that illegal downloads had to stop or we would take more drastic measures.”
But the warnings were largely ignored.
And so the infamous Odex compensation demand letters were sent. A laundry list of personal and corporate missteps resulted in the barrage of online attacks against the firm.
“We didn’t expect such a reaction,” admitted Sing.
In the last few months, he said “we learnt to be more humble ... and yes, we’ve made mistakes”.
To counter allegations of profiteering from the compensation amounts it had demanded from downloaders, Odex has said it would hire an external auditor to go through its accounts and donate any profit from the crackdown to charity.
But the crackdown will go on.
“We promised we would be committed to protecting the studios, to bring piracy rates under control if they did this video-on-demand with us,” said Sing. – The Straits Times, Singapore / Asia News Network
Extending olive branch to downloaders