Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Essay: Fandom and Piracy (Part 2)

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

Part 1 here.

Arguably the industry that profited (not financially but in terms of popularity) the most from piracy is anime and manga. Today's anime/manga fandom was built on the bedrock of piracy. How did Americans develop a fascination for Japanese animation and comics (and not, say, Chinese Manhua or Filipino komiks)? Well, there's the poorly translated cartoons back in the day. Titles like Astro Boy might have been competently translated, but other titles were censored or badly adapted. Take for example Battle of the Planets which turned a world-hopping science team into a planet-hopping task force... and gained a robot companion to boot (which isn't to say this cheesy adaptation didn't garner its own following). The non-mainstream anime community developed by bringing copies (on VHS and Betamax) of shows into the US and airing it in public and private venues. When this wasn't enough--watching a show in a language you didn't understand could only go so far--fans started to translate the shows themselves by adding subtitles (called fansubs). Again, this gave birth to a micro-economy of passing around fansubbed videos or selling them (theoretically) at cost to other fans.

While the distribution of fansubs was clearly a labor of love, that doesn't mean it wasn't illegal. At worst, opportunists made the selling of fansubs a business (which is the case here in the Philippines), even if the videos themselves had notices that stated they weren't for sale. At best, the fansubs was exploiting the limitations of the rights holders: the shows the fansubbers translated typically wasn't licensed by anyone in the US, so no one came after them (and this kind of logic is probably what makes the Google Settlement palatable to non-authors). The latter practice is perpetuated until the present day, although anime/manga has developed to a point where there are right holders in the US, and come into conflict with fansubbers.

Of course it could be argued that allowing the perpetuation of these anime pirates was a good thing for the parent companies. The fansubbers, after all, were driving interest for the said intellectual property and was a form of marketing, albeit an unsanctioned one. In fact, some of the fans who watched the fansubs would later on purchase the official versions when it was licensed locally. (Unfortunately, there's also a fan segment that refuses to purchase anything that's commercially sold, everything from viewing the phenomenon as a "sell-out" to entitlement issues.)

For the Japanese manga industry, this eventually paid off in Hong Kong. For quite some time, Hong Kong publishers were translating Japanese manga into the local language and selling them--all without paying a licensing fee to the Japanese companies. Eventually however, these publishers saw how lucrative the business was and decided to make their business legit. (More info can be found here.) If you're an optimist, you could interpret this phenomenon as the Japanese publishers winning because they sold the rights to one of their franchises without lifting a finger! If you're a pessimist, you could view the incident as the years of "lost revenue" committed by the pirates-turned-legal-business. (Does either side of the argument sound familiar?)

The Internet, of course, was a game changer in the anime/manga community. Fansubbers started distributing their titles through the Internet (following a mail-order type of business), and later, as technologies made broadband connections more prevalent, available for download. The real revolution however was for manga. At this point, US manga publishers still didn't know how to market their product. A lot of formats were attempted: American comics (the pamphlets with left-to-right printing), digest-sized graphic novels, oversized graphic novels, phonebook anthologies, etc. During this period of uncertainty, fans were pointing to Japanese vendors (or their counterpart in the Bay Area) to purchase the original Japanese manga, and then created or referred to websites which had line by line translations. This wasn't so bad really (fans had to buy the original manga after all to get the context of the translation) until the advent of broadband connection. Soon, it was feasible to upload scans of the entire manga, and from there, it evolved into people *combining* the translations and the scanned manga into one neat package (which is what's called "scanlations").

What's interesting with anime/manga fansubbing and scanlating is that through the ease of communication and management via the Internet, this form of piracy became industrially efficient. For example, in the case of fansubs, one guy in Japan would provide the raw video, another person in Asia would provide the translation, and a different person in the US would do the timing of the scripts. In the case of scanlations, someone would provide the raw scans, another the "cleanup" of the scanned images, another the translations, etc. It's a very specialized industry that's not hampered by corporate bureaucracy: for popular titles, you can expect a fansub or scan within the same week of release (or sometimes, even sooner than that in the case of leaks).

Right now, the anime/manga pirates are divided into two groups: those that are semi-illegal since they only translate and distribute titles which aren't licensed locally (and when it does get licensed, they encourage you to support and purchase the product) and those that are clearly illegal as their distribution competes with existing rights holders (and because of the translation and copyright delay, the pirates publish their material sooner) and whose fanbase gets angry with local companies that send cease-and-desist letters. What's interesting to note is that while I'm aware of this as an "insider", the lay people are completely unaware of this distinction. I've seen friends for example freely link to manga available on the web, and at best, they are unaware that they are, in fact, pointing to sites that violate copyright law.

That's not to say current companies licensing anime/manga aren't benefiting from this black market either. Fan interest for example can be a gauge as to whether a title should be licensed locally or not. And at the end of the day, anime/manga's black market is only a minority when you compare it to the mass-market. One of the America's best-selling manga for example is Naruto, and scanlations of the title is still prevalent to this very day. Is the latter hurting the sales of the former? Is it boosting it? Or better yet, in what proportion of both?

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