A Plea for Egosubber-ism: Fansub to Tease over Fansub to Please

After giving the issue a good workout in my mind I realized there really isn’t anything wrong with egosubbing. Well, purely speaking in terms of intellectual property rights, at least. They may have other problems, like one involving ego or need for attention, but that’s besides the point.

It’s a bit of a Lockean, human instinct. When you work hard, you value your labor. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but I think one application is through the “Golden Rule.” Generally you respect other people’s hard work because you respect yours and you would like others to do the same. Sort of like why it’s bad to download a paper online and hand it in for homework as your own.

Once we start to describe things from an industrial model of production–cars, planes, computers, TV shows, etc–we’re talking about complex and elaborate things, requiring massive manpower and a very diverse pool of talent to put together. These are things that are made possible only by a corporate entity, for the most part. But the corporate producer is a faceless, soulless money grabbing machine. At least in light of American corporate law, anyways.

Sure, when we boil down to it, people who fansub are breaking copyright law mainly for producing and distributing a derivative work without permission. It doesn’t matter if the copyright is owned by a person or a company. But somehow fansubbing is a bit less morally offensive, for several reasons: it’s free publicity, there’s no access to it, there’s a bit of implied consent, etc. Maybe also because anime is not a poor-man’s art form, and we can care less for corporate benefits.

Also, we recognize fansubbers are pretty dedicated people who would put in time and resources and effort to put fansubs together. Poor little fansubbers should get a break because they’re so passionate, as some would presume, about this hobby.

With all that in the background, let’s ask some questions, and maybe by answering them we’ll understand egosubbing in a better light.

Do we really care why people fansub? I think per se, people don’t really care. Certainly I don’t ask myself every time I download a file “why is [so and so] fansubbing this show?” I don’t think I never ask that, to be fair–some groups tend to fansub a certain type or types of shows, and you can tell they do it because they like it, first and foremost. Sometimes I would know the fansubber in a more personal way and I would know exactly why. But I can’t imagine the average person downloading a sub does ask, for the most part. I’d like to say, more generally, we don’t care. To flip the question in reverse, if someone fansubs because it makes his left buttcheek feel good, would you mind watching this said sub? Probably not. How about because fansubbing makes him feel better about himself (generally)? Would you care? I think it’s hard to answer this question any other way.

Human beings are a diversely motivated group of individuals. To put it in simple words, people do whatever they want because there’s a reason for everything someone does. It wouldn’t be fair to presume, at the very least.

What is the purpose of fansubbing? The normative way to ask the similar question is probably even closer to the point I want to make. But instead of the usual cliche, let’s explore this question in the practical sense.

Indeed, fansubbing is the act of producing a fansub, and making fansubs available, and people generally fansub so others can watch anime that is otherwise inaccessible. Being a group of diversely motivated individuals, people watch fansubbed anime that is otherwise inaccessible for a variety of reasons. I think for many of us, it’s just entertainment. In that sense, the primary purpose of fansubbing is to entertain. If we can concede that most anime out there are made as entertainment, then fansubbing is a content-delivery system to deliver entertainment.

Yes, there are plenty of secondary effects as the result of entertaining a bunch of people with anime that is otherwise inaccessible without fansubs. To use common TV-mass media term, it’s about selling eyeballs. The difference here is that the show itself is the commercial for its potential retail release. But one must wonder if the connection is distinct and strong enough to lay claims of causation between fansubbing and potential sales figure. Indeed, some in the fan circle challenges this notion in a very black and white way, claiming fansubbing is unnecessary today. We need not to go that far, thanks to something called fansubbing ethics.

More specifically, fansubbers generally adhere to a set of ethics. And this set of ethics is actually rather universal. People back in the days of early VHS subbing first faced the exactly same ethical squabble we do today. What’s really different is eBay as an outlet for bootlegs, and a generally lowering of costs. Bootleggers today no longer wholesale, duplicate and repackage, but extract scripts and remaster the stuff (sometimes) for DVD sale. But it’s nothing new.

The fact that an ethical dimension is brought in so quickly to the fansubbing enterprise, soon after its birth, has two main reasons. One, we hate bootleggers, and thus we want to draw the line somewhere, as far as how much liberty you have with the “source material” as classified under the title of fansubbing. Second, it draws a distinct line of conduct which facilitate the interaction between fansubbers and their commercial interests–both to protect fansubbers AND the anime companies, and to fashion a calculus that makes fansubbing a (somewhat) manageable, quantizable element in the overall legal and economic equation.

Why does ego matter? Because implicit in the ethical posture includes the necessary acknowledgement, that at least, fansubbing is illegal. Fans, at the mercy of their corporate providers, needs to respect and funnel their funds into furthering the industry. (I’ve always looked at that as a tenuous connection at best, but whatever works.) The reason why we have this ethical framework, may it be philosophical or practical, is not important. What is important is that this set of guiding ethics, compared to other form of distribution-promotion model treading on copyright infringement, is very well-defined, public (most fansubbers tell you who they are, websites and encoded graphics and all), and respectful. Because fansubbers, on the whole, obey rules. Ego is not a part of the prescription, and the essence of fansubbing’s controversy is the paradox of breaking the rule, albeit in a methodical manner.

So when the ego gets out of the legally-grey box of ethical fansubbing behavior, people gets pissed.

So what, I ask? No matter how they are motivated, they are fansubbing. And it makes little difference one way or another. The only real complaint would be that egosubbers do a worse job fansubbing than a fansubber who is driven mostly by her passion for making this show accessible to the masses because she likes it so much, but there’s no real evidence for it. I suppose if they’re telling you to piss off when you asked nicely, they’re just jerks. Egosubbers who take pride in their work could be nice and reasonable people, and not so dogmatic as to be stubborn and too close-minded to consider alternatives to their methods. Indeed, I think people care about egosubbers at all only because they react badly. I suppose no matter what, it’s just poor form to be all snide like that.

And it does arise from those contexts–why do fansubbers clutter OP/ED with crap? Why don’t they release scripts? Why this why that… are they all reasonable demands? Maybe not, but in the face of public pressure, positive or negative, we should all just remind ourselves that the bottom line matters the most, and there’s no need to get worked up over it.

One bit of a post note: there’s this academic article written by some JD-LLM guy down in Texas. It reads like a hick but it is definitely very comprehensive. A must read if you want to actually learn about law and fansub and how they clash.

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