Perspectives About Fansubbing

If opinions are like pieholes and everyone’s got one, then this blog post is like a public toilet?

I want an ensemble anime about fansubbing!

I kid. But more seriously people do need to think about the whole fansubbing fiasco with the open letter and what not. I took the time to compile a small list of general schools of thoughts regarding the matter and maybe that can help you make up your mind.

I compiled these things over the course of a couple weeks, but I know I am missing out on some of your more creative brothers and sisters in this disguise of a lesson on franchising. Com’on folks, we’re in the 21st century and this is a very old idea in comparison. Why don’t people understand it already?

But as usual, please share your perspective if you care. Lawson’s post takes it home my first impression–we are in this together. We are not enemies but people working together for a common goal. Keep your fault blaming at home like this man does. (LOL BOSS MAN?)

Perspective One: Fansubbing lets people watch anime for free. Digital distribution makes it easy for people, even computer illiterates, to download their favorite shows (for that matter, even non-fansub stuff) and watch it when companies are counting on you to buy them instead.

In a plain sense one has to overcome the baseline objection and perspective about getting something for nothing. But when it comes to disposable, consumer popular media, it’s a buyer’s market. If you want to make a buck selling anything you have to give the American audience something to think about. Kids love Naruto and most anime fans already have some collection of their favorite titles. There’s just no space for some “A” titles, so let alone “B” ones. Fansubbing cuts into the sales of these types of show in a notable way.

And you know what, that’s fine and agreeable. That is also the present-past. What can we do to make it better? Better for the fansub viewers, and better for the companies? That is the start of our discussion.

Perspective Two: Fansubbing is the root of anime fandom in the west, and it’s time to ditch it as mission complete. All the big shows in Japan gets licensed nowadays, just as a matter of time. It’s doing more harm than good in terms of financial strain on the licensees.

This is a fair stance to take given that anime is now a widely-recognized, Japanese national export. But this will also transform the fan scene that we know. For example, compare New York Anime Festival with Otakon. The two anime conventions detail very well what a fansub-less world would look like versus one that’s more traditional and we are familiar with. Ok, I’m sort of kidding (NY area anime cons generally suck, sadly), but maybe Anime Expo would serve as a more popular proxy of an industry-minded convention. In some sense, it is not a bad thing that fansubbing gives way to faster licensing and just generally, more direct industry mingling with the fan base (heh, I really enjoyed AXNY that one year), but that has not happened consistently (if often at all). Furthermore different corporate entities vary at how good they are at doing it. Some are terrible; others are epic wins.

That’s one area where companies can spend more of their marketing dollars and yield a lot of positive fan rapport as a result.

Perspective Three: It’s there, we take it.

I like this perspective because it rings true. But this is the kind of thought that gives rise to nonsense like DRMs. And even if it’s short and sweet, we don’t know if it’s a fair statement to make in face of the factual situation. Even with the entire world pirating over the internet, the media industry still makes a good buck, even if they are struggling to change the way they do business. There is, as widely recognized, a gap where the industry folks can move in and figure out some way to squeeze this new rock for blood. But this is the sad reality of things. And ultimately we have to recognize that anime, a form of mass media most of the time, is meant to be given away and freely taken as they were created. The value of TV anime plummets when no one watches it. That’s the simple fact.

It’s only the past few years US-based licensees are starting to sell things as franchises and not as products. IMO that’s epicfail. When Disney-Pixar makes a film, they are not selling just a film, folks. They are, in effect, selling shares of their fans’ and viewers’ minds. It’s priceless if you know how to make use of it. It’s there, why aren’t you taking it?

Perspective Four: It’s illegal.

It sure is not a sick bird. I think for everyone who are saying it’s illegal I hope you are a lawyer :D

(Warning: TL;DR. Skip the next paragraph if you don’t care about legality as much as how to make the producers and licensees money.)

What do I mean by that? OK, we all agree that unauthorized reproduction and translation of someone else’s copyrighted work is breaking the copyright code (at least, speaking from the American perspective), but please don’t compare it with every other act that you deem also as “illegal.” A long time ago I remember reading some random guy talking about fansubbing as about morally reprehensible as shoplifting. I think back to that and laugh. But my snide comments aside, there’s a reason why millions of people are getting away with this kind of piracy (pirating music, mp3s, etc) even within the US. There’s a reason why if RIAA do get on your butt on your music sharing habits, they don’t send the FBI on you, but they mail you a letter to let you know what’s going on (it’s just the beginning of a civil litigation). In fact, aside from actually dealing with courts (there are always court cops you have to deal with when you go to court), there is no space for cops to interfere. Breaking the copyright code carries criminal penalties, but it does not apply to the way most people are doing it (considering the going price of an episode of anime on the internet is about $3, and most people don’t upload more than 333 episodes of anything in a 180 day period). It certainly is not how far most fansubbers are doing it (lol talk about speedsubbing). We don’t even need to get to my copyleftist leanings to come to the conclusion that it’s non-criminal and illegal only because it’s convenient. It’s less criminal than speeding on the highway (no one died because of media piracy since I last checked. OH WAIT LAWL pun). It’s as illegal as being the victim in a car accident in a no-fault state (but much less dangerous). It’s definitely less illegal than being an illegal immigrant. It’s less illegal than speeding. It’s more annoying than being in civil disobedience, but probably also less illegal. It’s way, way less than shoplifting. It’s probably safer than having homosexual anal sex in some US states, and less criminal to boot! So how illegal is fansubbing? Quite illegal. But it’s a meaningless thing to say in this conversation. Just what does it accomplish? Do people even know the history of the copyright code in the US? It’s a dark abyss of moral indifference and corporate greed–a mechanism to regulate commercial competition between industries and to pad the pockets of federal legislators. And let’s not even talk about the internet in this context, because it’s LULZ.

But as many people have pointed out over time, we draw a very clear line between fansubbing and bootlegging. In reality the line is not so clear at some instances. This is the primary reason and harm caused that fansubbing ought to be stopped. If you’ve looked into an English-language bootleg lately, a lot of them are just fansubs that bootleggers downloaded and encoded.

Perspective Five: Fansubbing helps the industry today by bringing more press, more fanfare, and more buzz on the street.

O RLY. I just don’t know, though. Okay, we can say that without fansubs there would have been no early American anime fandom. But this stopped at some point–the very first proto-fans turned industry, and got the ball rolling. Soon we have people who are in for it not just for the love of passion but also to reap that immediate buck. The industry is self-sustaining. I recall some statement made by some industry guy saying the presence of bootlegs indicate that there is money to be made in this industry. It is just that while bootlegs are, by all means, a force of nature (in macro economics sense) to resolve short-term market inefficiencies, there is a long-term perspective to it that can yield more bucks if people invested towards it. But just how long-term are we talking about? Do we have the people and resources in the industry to capture it?

It may be generous to characterize the effect of fansubbing, from the perspective of people selling videos, as a double-edged sword. Remember bootlegs are also affected by the presence of fansubs. Or rather, bootlegs are affected by the ease and low cost of distribution via the internet. Factors like price, cost of production, timeliness, ease, and what is commonly accepted format all play a big role in the success of making money selling DVDs, along with many others. This is really the bottom line here, and if the lackluster numbers of DVD sales can be blamed on fansubbing, we have to isolate it a step further to really figure out what’s going on. At first glance we see that fansubs are convenient, speedy, and cheap all at once. But it’s probably not as good (with exceptions, but generally they aren’t) as a DVD you buy.

And this is where Perspective Three comes in. After it’s all said and done, fansubbing sometimes does help to market goods (HELLO SIMOUN) but at the same time it totally does not. Fansubbing is free market research. But also it makes fans all by itself. That’s what I call tilling the soil of the fans’ brains! Some company just need to swoop down and plant and grow some stuff instead of making us spend all this time on nicovideo doodling to bad Clannad fandubs. Or something. And they can save money on licensing cost by licensing the characters alone, and skip on video distribution or something.

Perspective Six: Fansubbing helps the industry today because I sure wouldn’t buy half the shows I own on DVD if I didn’t see it first.

This is probably the biggest reason why the US industry is flopping so much. I mean as much as God bless Geneon USA for licensing Nanoha, it just isn’t a title that’ll sell. It’s too otaku-poi. And face it, there are just very few otaku in the US. Few as in maybe thousands. And even so Nanoha is not everyone’s cup of tea. Adding on top the non-otaku interest to Nanoha (I think it’s a fine show for everybody?) it still doesn’t look very good from a marketability and revenue perspective.

Shows like that has gotten considerable attention from the fan base. But how about Fate Stay Night? I think this is a good example where we really need to distinguish between the anime and the franchise. Fate’s franchise is still going strong today; it still has a lot of fans. How this became to be is a complicated story (well, once upon a time there was this game…) but all the hype behind it crushed the anime that came as a result. People still bought it because it was interest enough, but it was not a very competitive product on its own. In the process of importing Fate there needs also the importation of the hype, the fandom, and the buzz that the Fate franchise has, and without having the original game reach the kind of penetration it did in Japan, that’s just not really possible.

This perspective is about marketing. I think people will buy any one thing if it had the right marketing pitch to it. Pet rocks anybody? Fansubbing, like word of mouth, the buzz on the street, what your mama says, etc, is a form of marketing. How do you market anime properly in the presence of fansubs? Or lack there of? That alone doesn’t do all the work, as I messily tried to point out with the above paragraphs about Fate and Nanoha.

More specifically, it’s not easy to market otaku-oriented anime. It’s easy to sell Howl’s Moving Castle, for obvious reasons. But when it comes to these more obscure stuff, people did try it with various means over the past several years. In fact, I think Bandai/Kadokawa did a great job with the Haruhi wave so far, sort of as the accumulation of the failure of others. And that’s just something that had to exist with fansubbing–or rather, fansubbing is the natural fruit of this kind of fan buzz. My opinion is that fansubbing is fansubbing. If you look at it just as subbing, then you are missing the boat and it would obviously be simply a bunch of people trying to cheat people out of their money by providing a free product. But the flip side is true. Don’t sub something commit copyright infringement over something you’re not a fan of. It’ll save you headache and precious time you could use for improving the lives of you and your immediate friends and families. It’s just not worth it.

That’s it for now. But if you take this serious I would be interested to hear what you have to say… Especially if it’s something I have not heard before… lol.


6 Responses to “Perspectives About Fansubbing”

  • Kojioe

    I think I’m in number 3. Though, I really don’t care about this whole fiasco thing. I didn’t even know there was a problem until I started reading other blogs. So, who cares about it all? Just watch anime in whatever way you want and enjoy it.

  • TheBigN

    I also think the whole thing is about how to make anime more marketable, at least in the US, it seems.

    Do we know the state of the American anime fan? I think think the problem is there isn’t a real consensus, even when looking at DVD sales of shows: who are the majority of people who pay for anime? The people who watch what’s on Adult Swim and the like? The fans who know more about what comes out in Japan? And when you get to the majority, do we know what types of shows they prefer? Could
    they be interested in shows that are atypical in genre or approach? Does it really even matter? :/

  • dm

    A thorough analysis of the different positions. This is the first time in a while that I’ve seen the franchise notion discussed in such detail, and it’s a good point — Disney films, for example, typically bring in as much in licensing fees for tchotchkes as they do at the box office (of course, it’s not clear how many Ouran High School Host Club Happy Meals would get sold).

    With respect to your discussion of the gradations of legality, anothe way to think about it, is, “how long would the law last in this form, if it were to be strictly and rigorously enforced?” Strict enforcement of copyright law, as written, would probably lead to a quick change in the law to make it more consumer-friendly. The content cartels may have the well-paid lobbyists and the campaign-finance muscle, but the consumers still have the votes.

    I hope the industry can come up with a solution that competes with fansubs. “You can’t compete with free” doesn’t seem to have stopped Perrier’s sales, after all (perhaps this is not so far from the Bandai Boss’s “if the quality is there, you’ll pay for it, no?”).

  • TP

    I think TheBigN highlighted the disparity of American animé fans: ones that watch from Adult Swim, ones that watch directly off raws from Japan, and the ones in the middle. It becomes a mixture of sub-cultures within a fan culture, and it might affect how animé is marketed in the States.

    In the Peoples’ Island Republic, however, there are animé shows that are getting here with less lead times. I have to admit, however, that following Animax-Asia’s priority scheduling, more good shows are seemed to aimed at the Philippine market to compete with their own local animé TV fixtures, which featured top Filipino actors/actresses to voice-dub some of the animé shows. Nonetheless, animé has pervaded into becoming a second youth subculture in Singapore.

    I think at the end of the day, however disparaging the differences between animé marketability in the States and Southeast Asia, is that fansubs have become some sort of a necessary evil (this phrase has been oft-repeated in many blogs and forums of late), something that the industry have to deal with. With the DVD format wars going on, it’s impossible to chart the growth of animé in the short-term. Since DVD video are slightly inferior than HD-quality fansubs (I have to digress when it comes to what encodes those videos are in), people seemed to harp on the future of video/content distribution is with Internet downloads.

    For my take, however, I feel that there should be more democratization for anime studios to take control of their products’ (a.k.a. anime shows) method of distribution. I have long since killed off any love for distributors, big exclusive licensee companies and middlemen. I prefer a direct relationship between the seller and the buyer (that is, between the anime-producing companies and the audience).

  • dm

    ICv2 evidently talked about anime statistics at NY Anime Festival:

    http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/convention/2007/nyaf-icv2/icv2/whitepaper

  • dm

    And some business model talk, too:

    http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/convention/2007/icv2-conference-on-anime-and-manga-marketing-to-the-otaku-generation

    (Sorry for a double post).

    ANN’s MacDonald makes a lot of good points in there, including the interesting story about the license holder who is not chasing down fansubbers because they view merchandise sales to be more important than the DVD sales.

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