are fansubbers pirates?

Shamus has a three part series on PC game piracy in which he makes some concrete recommendations to the game industry. Part of Shamus’ premise is simply that video game piracy is a problem partly driven by the industry itself, with ever-increasing paranoid reliance on clumsy copy protection and authentication schemes that treat ordinary users like criminals and which do nothing to deter the thieves. He argues that the industry should accept a baseline level of piracy and attempt to incentivize users to buy the product rather than attempt to forestall it completely. His specific recommendations are:

1. Make sure the pirates can’t offer a superior product
2. Get closer to the community
3. Offer a demo
4. Entice them with valuable updates
5. Clean House

How does this apply to anime? It occurs to me that the rationale for the fansub industry is quite similar to game piracy. Region-encoding, release schedules, and unequal pricing seem to be the methods by which the anime industry attempts to control their product and which has created the vacuum which fansubbers have rushed to fill.

Do Shamus’ recommendations apply? It makes for an interesting thought experiment.

17 thoughts on “are fansubbers pirates?”

  1. These days, I think there are really only two rationales left for fansubbing: the subbers do it for ego, and the viewers do it because it’s free. Everything else is window-dressing.

    I don’t think the industry can do anything to get people to stop downloading and stat buying the product, not when a television show that aired on Thursday is online on Friday, and subbed in three languages within a week. Add DVD bonus content? Improved video quality and offer alternate takes? Search for “DVD version” on numerous torrent sites. Hell, fans of idol groups like Morning Musume often just torrent DVD ISOs these days, rather than bother with re-encoding the video.

    If the R2 anime industry is going to stay afloat, they basically have to write off all concept of profiting from DVDs, and budget to break even on the original TV broadcast, with profits coming from physical merchandise that has intrinsic value: figures, posters, art books, live events, etc. I expect the end result to be a much smaller industry, producing much less anime.


  2. well, consider a hypothetical (as an alternative to the present scenario, where fansubs are free). what if anime was released simultaneously in r1 with r2, with r1 incuding subs but not dubs and priced cheaply ($10). these could be available via itunes and amazon unbox only, further reducing overhead cost. the subs would be solicited from the fansub community itself. then, the box sets and thinpaks follow with dubbing and higher price, special features, etc.

  3. If you mean that the itunes/amazon downloads will be released within a few days of broadcast, at a quality equal to or better than a typical raw, with an integrated softsub finder, then they’ll get some sales. The itunes/amazon experience is better than torrent sites, and consistent delivery and quality is worth something (“hey, there was this cool show last season; all the torrents are dead, now, but it’s still on itunes”). Any money they get has to be considered gravy, though; I can’t see anyone counting it as part of their budget when the free downloads are still out there.

    I don’t see a real future for box sets and special features. Maybe thinpacks, but the dubs would get ripped and torrented if people wanted them, so those might as well be sold online, too.

    I’m assuming, of course, that the trend toward Internet-connected television will continue, with set-top boxes like the AppleTV replacing DVD players. If people firmly believed that big-screen movie-watching required a physical object containing the content, they might sell some box sets.


  4. I’m jealous of your monster. it looks like a Beholder.

    I think that the launch of Hulu suggests that the download model might even be free, with ad supported revenue sharing. The move to download for simultaneous release (not even a few days’ delay) would ive the anime industry a lot of power to experiment. Some revenue is better than the zero they get now, and if you make the content a no brainer (subscribe via RSS to your fav series, bundle the soundtrack as free MP3 downloads, etc) then I know a lot of people would give it a shot. After all, look at itunes itself. price is the key – either do free or do supercheap and let volume (and ads) carry the load.

    I think that the box set model has legs, too. Just recently, Trent Reznor literally gave away his album, but still sold 2500 copies of his ultradeluxe box set for $300. That blows my mind, he made 3/4 million dollars even though the core product is free! Theres no reason to think that hardcore otaku wouldnt do likewise. Once I am no longer a poor unemployed physics PhD I plan to buy my anime; I think that certain titles like HR, Sugar, etc are worth buying $100 deluxe versions for posterity. especially if i get more for the money than just the same file off bittorrent. I wuld love to have my banner image on this blog as a real piece of art…

    And I am skeptical that the media is obsolete. People have an attachment to the physical. Bluray won the war against HDDVD, now comes the push to replace our home libraries and justify the new HD sets we are all being forced to buy (literally) in less than 12 months. Theres nothing like having my LOTR box set on my shelf, that a pure digital folder on my drive can match. People might gravitate to digital for off the cuff stuff, but for the movies they care about, they will embrace the media. A true mindshift towards pure digital is probably a few generations away yet; Apple TV and Windows Media Center just arent there yet.

  5. Did you really just say “plastic disc” and “for posterity” in the same sentence, or was I imagining it?

    I don’t know how long DVDs will last, but I wouldn’t bank on “for posterity”. Now, if we’re talking “help keep the industry alive so they’ll be able to migrate to the new transient formats as they come along”, well, that might be a reasonable meaning of “for posterity”.

  6. Going point by point:
    1. Make sure the pirates can’t offer a superior product
    The only way the anime industry could do this is by offering non-DRM’ed HD downloads within days of an episode’s airdate. Don’t count on that happening–Japanese corporations aren’t known for making such radical leaps of faith, and in any case I’m not sure it would even be a winning proposition for them. It all depends on how many fansub watchers can be convinced to pay for legitimate downloads and whether it will be enough to offset the inevitable cannibalization of DVD sales (both R1 and R2).

    2. Get closer to the community
    This is something the US anime industry does better than almost any other entertainment industry. Do representatives of major movie studios and game development houses regularly hold Q&A sessions with ordinary fans at cons? Again, though, allowing the will of “the fans” to guide your business strategy might not be such a good idea. Like a lot of fan communities, discussion among anime fans is often dominated by a vocal minority, and it’s unwise to assume that the opinions of said minority are representative of the community as a whole. Candor from a company’s management (which is what Shamus suggests in his original post) is good, but remember to heed the silent majority.

    3. Offer a demo
    This has been done for a while, with studios making the first episode (or the first few episodes) of a series available free via streaming video. I can’t say it’s influenced me to buy anything, but then I generally use fansubs for this purpose, and even “blind buy” shows sometimes. It certainly can’t hurt.

    4. Entice them with valuable updates
    A literal translation of this to the anime realm would be making Lucas-esque “updated” versions of shows available to legit buyers. I somehow doubt you’d want to watch a “Greedo shoots first” edition of Haibane Renmei ;-). More realistically, maybe a series of animated shorts or something made available to legit buyers through a proof-of-purchase sort of thing? I’m not sure this even works in the PC gaming world… Shamus cites Stardock’s frequent updates to GalCiv, made available to registered owners, but I can’t see why those wouldn’t be pirated as well–they aren’t DRMed at all, right?

    5. Clean House
    Okay, this doesn’t really have an analogue at all in anime. Shamus is referring to plugging leaks that allow pirates to get at new releases before the street date, but I only know of one incident where that happened with an anime (IIRC it was the first episode of Akane Maniax, the Kimi ga Nozomu Eien OVA).

    So I’m not seeing any silver bullets. I’m becoming more convinced that J is right–there’s nothing the industry can do to make buying a better value than torrenting, at least from the perspective of most BitTorrent downloaders.

  7. Here’s where I think the bottom line is: no more than a tiny percentage of current fansub viewers will ever pay to watch anime, ever again. The only way to make money off of them is to sell them something they can’t download, or sell them a better download experience. Going forward, I think the DVD market will consist almost entirely of those people who for some reason don’t download fansubs.

    For instance, of the ~20,000 people who are keeping up with the torrents of Rosario + Vampire, I’d be surprised if more than 1,000 bought DVDs, and that’s only if they don’t give up in disgust after the trainwreck that was episode 10. And that doesn’t count the people watching it on Youtube, Crunchyroll, or other streaming sites. If you look at the forums, most of the hardcore English-speaking fans got that way by downloading the scanlated manga. How many will buy the manga or the DVDs if they’re released in the US? They’re just not customers, in any meaningful sense of the term.

    At least, not to the people telling the story. They are potential customers to manufacturers of licensed merchandise based on the story, if they like it enough. This could mean that the future contains fewer-but-better releases, with cooler tie-in merchandise, but it could also mean that everything but Naruto becomes extinct.


  8. OK… I may be new to anime, I’m still learning what I like and don’t like. I’ve been downloading fansubs for the last season of 2007 and this current season and have already begun purchasing DVD’s of 5 different series just based on the fansubs I watched. And I know which of the current season’s offerings I’ll be buying if and when they’re released here in the US. I like to own hard copies of things, and I like the artwork on the packaging. So naturally DVD’s hold a big draw for me. I know that when I download a fansub, I’m basicly stealing content, but I do it with the full intent of purchasing those which I truly enjoy. Those that I don’t enjoy, get deleted. I can’t be the only person in the world like this, can I?

  9. I confess to being largely ignorant of the dynamics of the industry. But it seems to me that much the same arguments were made in the Napster era about music, prior to iTunes’ arrival. I dont think people download fansubs with thievery in mind, they simply want access to the content and the legitimate channel is simply too onerous and expensive. Thats evidence of a bad business model at the industry’s end, not a universal moral failure among the people who simply want to be fans (and the subbers clearly do this out of love, not greed).

    madmike, someday i will be where you are, but it was a major investment for me to buy my copies of sugar and haibane. I’ll admit freely I wont likely buy most of the anime I have downloaded. I understand I am on the wrong side of the fence here, but if I could buy anime for 10 bucks I would gladly do it. Thats only slightly more than a latte and coffeecake at starbucks, and id enjoy it a lot longer. I’m not alone in this.

  10. Yes, we’re all part of a small minority. Last quarter, one of my teachers was asked how a student should find real Japanese to listen to, and she said, “does everyone know about”.

    Very few fansub downloaders and stream-watchers think of themselves as thieves, and the ones who do think of it as a badge of honor (the “sticking it to the man” crowd). Browse the forums for a while, and I think you’ll conclude that they don’t think of downloading as an alternative to buying. They aren’t downloading because they can’t afford anime, they’re downloading because that’s how you get anime.

    These days, I think you’ll find most downloaders would rather spend their money on an external hard drive than on even the cheapest thinpack. Because the hard drive will hold more anime.

    The one thing they had right about the original Napster was that digital downloads will kill industries that rely on physical distribution of easily-digitized media. It just doesn’t happen overnight. The business of distributing shiny objects filled with music and video is going to go the way of the buggy-whip, and without a proven way to make money, less people will be interested in making the content. A lot of them won’t be missed, of course.

    The business of distributing flat objects filled with printed words is doing pretty well, by comparison, and the reason is that the intangibles are more obvious to people. Fonts on screen aren’t as clear as offset print on paper, electronic readers aren’t as portable, convenient, or cheap as a paperback or magazine, etc. Equally doomed in the long run, but not threatened by network bandwidth or storage capacity.


  11. J, isnt everything you said true about the pre-iTunes era as well? you are right, iTunes is just the legitimate face of the poison killing the industry. Or rather, forcing it to adapt. I guess the same will happen in anime.

  12. I think the key difference is that the business of creating music can adapt much more easily. See the success of Jonathan Coulton, for instance, and contrast with Deborah Gibson, who’s been trying to make it as an independent for years, and remains mired in the distributing-shiny-objects business model, largely due to the quality of her technical advisors. She doesn’t even have her stuff in the iTunes store.

    Setting aside the depressing finances and grunt work involved, I think the other key difference between music and anime is that people actively seek out singles as well as albums. In many cases, they’ve been hating the album model for years, with the music industry charging for one good song and nine crappy ones.

    There are times when you just want a single episode of a tv show or anime series, but it’s much more common that people want a complete story. Downloaders hate it when a series is dropped, or the early episodes stop being seeded, and then there’s that whole “got licensed” thing. Jonathan Coulton built up his catalog song by song, and wasn’t trying to make a living off of the online sales at the same time; an anime studio can’t do the same thing.


  13. I don’t see “I can’t afford to buy DVD’s” as a valid excuse for downloading fansubs. And the theory that it’s OK to “stick it to the man” for pricing it out of my reach” is just as bad. I’ve always wanted a Porsche 911 (since I first saw one at a race track when I was 11 years old). By the above theory, I should chastise Porsche for their elitist pricing policies and because I don’t make enough to buy one, should just wander down to the dealership at night and steal one.

    I know everyone has to draw a line at what they find acceptable/unacceptable. I guess it’s that modern day sense of entitlement some folks have (i.e. “music wants to be free”) that I really find abhorrent. If I download a fansub and find it to be something of value to me, rather than burn the downloads to DVD, I feel it’s my duty to fork out some cash to the folks who created it (so that hopefully they’ll keep it up!).

  14. madmike, I don’t have much argument. When I download a fansub, I am obviously in a very straightforward sense acquiring something I didn’t pay for. Thats the literal definition of stealing.

    However, I don’t accept the equivalence to your Ferrari example either. My options are simple: stop enjoying anime entirely, or buy every single title I might want to watch. (Even downloading a fansub just for purposes of a demo to see if you like it enough to buy is still, literally, stealing).

    All things considered, the fansubs are out there, and I like less than 1 in 3 anime I watch, so I plan to continue. That’s the reality. And as Author mentioned, there are other industries that flourish despite the existence of a back channel. If the anime industry were serious about catering to the market, they’d drop region coding. If they dont want to play on a level market field, then I don’t see why I should either.

    Yes, maybe just an excuse, but the bottom line is that if anime goes under as an industry, there will be blame to go around. But one wonders why its only the Japanese industry that has this problem? Its not like you cant find copies of every single Hollywood, Bollywood, and television show on every major network out there on the torrents, either. And somehow those industries stay solvent. What makes anime different?

  15. I think the potential impact of scanlations on manga sales is at least partially masked by the number of people who just stand in the aisles at a bookstore and read without buying. Essentially, that market already had a known percentage of free riders, and whether they do it online or in the store doesn’t make a big difference. I do think there’s a visible quality difference between the scanlations I’ve seen and the printed manga, even in the smaller sizes, and that may explain some of the difference. Or maybe it’s just that more people still think that comic books are something you buy. Or maybe they like to read in the bathroom. 🙂

    More significantly, the manga boom has already had at least one minor bust. ADV dropped out, lots of others went from monthly releases to bi-monthly or quarterly, etc. A sudden impact like that will dwarf any gradual, long-term loss to scanlations. I gather the demise of Suncoast hit the anime companies pretty hard.


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