First published by national broadcaster KBS, the report claimed that after five years of tracking, major webtoon publisher Kakao Entertainment had “identified the operator of ‘M’, the world’s largest illegal comics and webtoon distribution site.”
Big (Conflicting) Claims
This claim piqued our interest. Half a decade of tracking is significant and tends to suggest an important target. But after all that time, why give a heads-up in the media to the operator of the largest site of its type in the world?
Since it’s relatively easy to identify the world’s largest sites operating in that sector, why go on to mysteriously refer to the platform only as ‘M’? The answer to that question may lie in the fact that several of the largest sites have names beginning with that letter. However, taking such claims at face value isn’t always advised.
In the fourth paragraph of the article, a comment from Kakao Entertainment further muddied the waters. In a pretty sizeable shift away from the original claim, that the operator of ‘M’ had been identified, Kakao stated (emphasis ours):
“If we identify the operator, we will be able to take civil and criminal action against each individual for violating copyright law, which will likely lead to a more fundamental solution to the problem of illegal distribution.”
Confidence vs. Confusion
In his book The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote that the whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so real intent cannot be fathomed. If that was the plan, it certainly worked here. Meanwhile, other publications seemed much more confident.
On December 19, 2023, South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced the culmination of a major online piracy investigation and a significant arrest.
With Assistance from U.S. Homeland Security, “Site Shut Down”
The press release issued by the Ministry of Culture immediately scaled down the nature of the target. The world’s largest illegal comics and webtoon site was now being described as the largest site of its type in Korea. That doesn’t diminish the importance of the site locally but does set it apart from other sites with up to 60 million visits per month more.
After naming the site for the first time, the statement reveals that the operator of ‘Shelter’ was arrested following cooperation between the Ministry of Culture’s Copyright Crime and Scientific Investigation Unit, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in the United States, and the Korea Copyright Protection Agency.
“The operator of the ‘shelter’ site, which was visited by about 21.7 million people (according to SimilarWeb) in ’23, was provisionally found to have earned about 340 million won [$35 million] in advertising revenue,” the statement notes, adding that the platform illegally shared almost 27,000 titles causing “significant damage” to the publishing industry.
“The site was located overseas, which made it difficult to investigate the operator, but through active international cooperation and collaboration with the U.S. Homeland Security Investigation Agency, we were able to identify access from a specific space in Korea, and based on this, we were able to identify and arrest the operator of the ‘Shelter’ site.”
Images of the Raid Spread Online
Information released by the authorities provides no personal detail on the alleged operator of Shelter, so age and arrest location can’t be reported at this time. However, images of the raid distributed by the Ministry of Culture appear to show where Shelter was operated from.
The contrast between $35 million in advertising revenue and the hardware on display has been a topic of discussion since the raid, and probably best summed up by the comment, “The shelter operator lives more frugally than I thought.”
While the name ‘Shelter’ is now being mentioned openly, its full name and online location aren’t part of the information released to the public. That may be due to the platform remaining online, subject to limitations presumably put in place by the site’s operator.
1412.live / 1412.rest
While there’s a likelihood that other domains exist, Shelter operates from 1412.live. The authorities claim that the site marketed itself as a comic review platform but was really a pirate-linking site in disguise.
As far as we can determine, users of the site posted links to comics hosted on third-party file-hosting platforms for other users to download via the site.
Visitors to the platform are currently greeted with a popup notice in Korean, translated as follows;
Hello. I am very sorry to leave you with bad news.
Regarding the link posted on the book information bulletin board on December 5th. A crackdown was carried out by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
As previously announced, the book information bulletin board is closed and can no longer be used. In addition, we would like to inform you that all posts and comments related to sharing or requesting novels or posting download links are strictly prohibited and subject to sanctions.
We would like to apologize to the rights holders who suffered damage.
A browse around the platform reveals several items of interest. Not only does Shelter have many rules that can result in suspension, it also has a section containing a list of rightsholders who have complained about content being shared without permission. Linked from the frontpage under the title “Protection List‘, the list is actually hosted at Notion.
The text is in Korean but when translated, reads as follows:
Sharing pirated files by uploading them directly to an external server or cloud is prohibited by international copyright conventions.
The operation team is unable to verify direct infringement of URLs that link to third-party external websites, but if direct infringement is confirmed, posts may be deactivated and penalty measures may be taken without notice.
For registration restriction request procedures, please refer to the Posting Takedown and Rights Protection document.
Traffic data obtained from various sources broadly supports the 21.7 million visits per year claimed by the authorities. For the site’s main domain, 1412.live, SimilarWeb currently reports 1.4 million visits per month and SEMRush reports 4.3 million over three months. However, traffic appears to have diminished in the last few months of the year, so more recent figures may not be especially informative.
With some of the largest manga sites currently enjoying between 50 and upwards of 80 million visits per month, Shelter was nowhere near the largest.
On a local basis, there’s no question it was significant, just not as significant globally as people were initially led to believe, or named in the manner that was implied either. Whether the site’s operator made $35 million from advertising remains a question, at least in light of the frugal hardware on display.
From: TF, for the latest news on copyright battles, piracy and more.