The end of the world as we know it: crunchyroll deletes user-uploaded files.
The new year brought an unwelcome surprise to the 4.8 million people who belong to the on-line video streaming site crunchyroll.com, sometimes referred to as the Asian youtube (though it was founded by UC Berkeley undergrads and it’s based in San Francisco). Since its launch in 2006 until Jan. 1, 2009 the site had hosted music and games as well as literally thousands of films, anime, and Asian dramas. Almost all of its content was illegally uploaded by members, meaning that anyone could stream from a huge selection of material at absolutely no cost. As expected from such a massive, unrestricted site, depending on the source material and the skill of the uploader, image quality ranged from good to crappy.
For example, due to the ineptitude of the member who posted it, the site’s version of Exiled had Mandarin and Cantonese audio tracks running
simultaneously, which led to a surreal viewing experience to say the least. Other movies had serious sync problems or were uploaded from vcds, but almost all of the material had English subs and the streaming was fast and reliable, so it was a great place to indulge in a lot of no-cost Asian movie watching. (In contrast, watching a non-subbed movie on youku.com, the Chinese-language streaming site, is slow torture. Aside from the language barrier, the site streams like cold molasses and a ninety-minute movie can take twice that to get through.)
Free is always a good price and I can attest to crunchyroll’s addictive quality–it enabled my Francis Ng binge from last month and I was able to watch at least a dozen of his movies, including a couple not yet available in the US on dvd such as Shamo and One Last Dance. I was also able to wallow in all 35 episodes of one of Francis’s turgid HK melodramas, The Great Adventurer, wasting a week of my life wending through its labyrinthine storyline.
Crunchyroll’s dilemma began when the site started offering higher quality streams for members who “donated” six dollars per month. Because of its legal murkiness, this opened the site to potential licensing lawsuits, as it began profiting from copyrighted materials it didn’t own. Suddenly it wasn’t one big happy filesharing family—with nearly 5 million members someone was making some coin, and the site recently made moves to correct this possible legal sinkhole. No doubt realizing the thin ice such flagrant copyright violations implied, at the start of 2009 crunchyroll purged its entire stock of non-licensed programming and began to host only legally licensed shows. Gone were all of the Korean, Hong Kong, and Japanese soap operas, the extensive library of films and anime, and everything else that made the site imperative for obsessive Asian media-watchers. As expected, most of the membership let out a collective shriek, but in order to further cover its ass legally, the site will likely not add back those titles. It’s instead instituted a subscription system that, in cooperation with anime distributors, will allow paying customers to selectively view whatever shows the site can license.
As for those of us who gorged on free movies and dramas, the ride is over. Of course it was too good to last—I’m glad I was able to enjoy it while I could. Here’s hoping another similar site crops up soon.
UPDATE: Oops, busted! Looks like Huayi Bros, the big-time Chinese film producer and distributor, is going after several Chinese-language sites for illegally hosting the brand new Mainland China film, If You Are The One, which was released on Dec. 18 and has already hit the intertubes. Named in the lawsuit are Sina.com, Sohu.com, Youku.com, Tudou.com and VOC. Maybe crunchyroll pulled out of the illegal filesharing game just in time.
UPDATE 2: Interesting analysis here about how China’s latest crackdown on Internet smut may be a harbinger of larger things to come. Good discussion of the issue in relation to the recession, politics and the social compact of China’s economic boom.