Ben Trube – CSE 601 – January 19, 2006 Anime Fansub has become increasingly prevalent in the past few years to the point where it is possible to get near DVD quality episodes of a show in America only 20 hours after it has been aired in Japan. This is possible because of improved capturing and digitizing technology and the creation of file sharing programs such as BitTorrent which allow movie files to be shared without the need for a centralized server. The ease with which Anime Fansub can be obtained can be cause for concern, as it poses a legitimate threat to the purchasing of licensed products in America as well as in Japan. However, experience has shown that Fansub serves more as a marketing tool, both as a gauge of what is popular in America, and encouraging actual sales. In this essay I will explore the history of Fansub and the reasons for the current problem, as well as parallels to the file sharing battles the RIAA and MPAA are waging. I will explore the question of copyright as it applies to Fansub, which while technically illegal is widely accepted. Lastly, I will discuss parallels between the file sharing system used in BitTorrent and incentive based economics.
A “Fansub” is a sub-titled version of a raw Japanese animated show. A show is captured or recorded in Japan producing a “raw” file. The show is then translated into English by enthusiasts and sub-titles are added so that they coincide with the dialogue being spoken. The process is similar to that used by professional companies, especially with the improvements in video capturing. Fan subbing has actually been going on for many years, starting with the boom in new Anime shows in the 1980s. At the time very little Anime was actually being licensed in the United States, and the shows that were were often edited for content or released only in “dubbed” or English dialogue format. This produced groups of people who wanted to distribute shows that were otherwise not easy to obtain to other enthusiasts.
Early Fan subbing was very primitive, expensive, and often of low quality. Sophisticated video equipment was required for adding in the sub-titled text, and in making copies of the finished product. Originals tended to come from either high quality laser discs or SVHS and often cost $50 - $100 an episode. This combined with the high cost of the transfer equipment meant that the distributed copy could often only be done on lower quality VHS. Even in those days, however, Fansub was very much an at cost, by fans for fans, subculture. An interested Anime club could send in blank tapes and money for shipping, and Fan subbing groups would send their finished show.
The recent proliferation of Anime Fansub, and indeed file sharing of all kinds of content in the last few years is due to several significant improvements in technology. The first is the increased quality of video capture and editing equipment. Personal Computers are powerful enough that combined with the right software and a DVD recorder, anybody can be a fansubber. The second is a file sharing technology known as BitTorrent, the purpose of which is to reduce the demands on any one single computer for downloading by creating a decentralized network of “seeders” and “leechers”. Instead of one server handling multiple requests for a file, files are split into chunks with “leechers” or downloaders grabbing different pieces of the same file. Once they have a piece of a file they can “seed” or upload the piece to another person downloading the file. In this system the more people downloading a file the faster the download can actually be. These two technologies eliminate the expenses that an 80s and even early 90s fansubber would have had just to produce their product, improving both the quality and availability.
Early Fansub was more tolerated because the quality and availability were low enough that a fan of the series would still be interested in purchasing the officially licensed version of the show. Modern Fansub comes a lot closer, however, to professional quality with any difference being comparable to watching a show on an analog TV versus high-definition; there is a difference but most of the time it does not matter that much. In fact the quality of American fansubs and captures has grown high enough that people in Japan also download the release in order to not buy the product domestically.
With such obvious conflicts with legitimately licensed products, why is Anime Fansub so prevalent and is in fact used as a tool of many Anime companies? What sets Fansub apart from the file sharing of popular American television shows and movies the MPAA and RIAA is trying to stop?
One reason for Fansub not being outright banned is that Fansub does have an unwritten “code of conduct” which most groups who produce releases tend to follow. Like the days of VHS distribution, Fansub is produced either at-cost or for free. Additionally, most fansubbers stop subbing a series once it has been released in the United States and encourage downloaders of the sub to purchase the DVD's when they become licensed in their region. Certain websites such as www.animesuki.com and a.scarywater.net only list releases that follow this set of criteria and try wherever possible to be compliant with the requests of Anime companies.
Secondly, Fansub provides product that cannot be easily obtained any other way. Many series, especially older series such as Legends of the Galactic Heroes and the original Captain Harlock, are highly unlikely to be licensed in the United States, even if they were popular in Japan, because of the age of the show. Modern series such as Yakitate Japan, an Anime about a young baker who wishes to create a truly distinct Japanese bread, and other “distinctly Japanese” Anime are also unlikely to be licensed, because American distributors tend to choose series they feel Americans can relate to in some way.
Still, ethically, there is a lot of grey area. A recently licensed Anime, Naruto, had been running for 124 episodes at the time of license and was still producing new episodes. The timing was particularly bad for followers of the series since episode 124 happened to be in the middle of a critical story arch. The American Licensing company ShoPro entertainment, bought the first 52 episodes of the series and the dubbed version began airing on Adult Swim in September. Even if the rest of the series was eventually bought it would take years of normal airing and DVD releases to catch up to the point fans of the show had reached in Fansub. Some groups chose to and still do produce releases of the newer episodes, which have over 250,000 downloads per week. This violates the new American license even though the episodes in question are not licensed. Many new series are licensed for American distribution before they even finish airing in Japan producing conflicts similar to those described above.
Another problem is that technically Fansub is illegal under the 1995 WTO TRIPS agreement which protects the intellectual property of any member nation. Japan and the United States fall under this agreement as both are members. However, it is very rare for any legal action to be taken, and so far, unlike the MPAA and RIAA lawsuits, no Anime company has sued an American fansubber. The strongest language ever used is usually a letter requesting the fansubber cease and desist distribution of an Anime. One notable case is that of Media Factory Inc. requesting that groups subbing their releases cease all current and future distribution, and that AnimeSuki remove any link to those downloads. This happened late last year and so far no further action has been taken against the groups.
Why hasn't more legal action been taken against fansub groups, given that the practice is illegal and could affect sales both in Japan and abroad? The reason seems to be that Fansub actually has the opposite affect on sales, Fansubs promote series that would otherwise not receive notice in the United States, and can be used as a gauge into what Americans are interested in buying. A notable example of fansub popularity leading to license is the series Azumanga Daioh, now licensed by ADV films. The series has a very “Peanuts” with a high school edge to it, but has many jokes that are based on references to Japanese culture and thus many thought it would not do well in American markets. The series, however, has met with nothing but success in part due to its bizarrely different approach to humor that is different from American culture. Many popular series on Adult Swim, such as Fullmetal Alchemist, Ghost in the Shell – Stand Alone Complex, and Naruto saw their start as Fansub. The Fansub serves to promote the sale of these series where they would have been relatively unknown otherwise. In the case of the Media Factory Inc. letters many of the series they produced have not been considered for American release in part due to their lack of popularity. By stifling the outlet for series to be previewed, Media Factory has in fact reduced their market. Many other companies, having seen the results of Media Factory's actions, have instead chosen to allow the Fansubs to exist as long as they follow the “code of conduct”.
Fansub also provides an outlet for the sharing and understanding of cultures. Fansub is expanding to include Japanese Drama shows, and Movies beyond just the typical samurai or badly dubbed giant monster movies that were the chief cultural export in the middle of the century. Many Americans are becoming more interested in Japanese culture and their interpretations of our culture. Anime as a form, evolved from our sharing of Disney animation with Japan, and now it is being shared with us, changed by their culture to become another art form. Money aside, Anime is an interesting and engaging way to learn about another culture, and Fansub provides the outlet for that sharing.
So how does Fansub parallel to the illegal distribution of movies and TV shows that the MPAA tries to battle and would the Fansub model be helpful for American shows? On a very base level the same technologies are involved in creating and distributing Fansub as are in licensed American shows. Both are the works of an original author and cast with the only difference being country of origin. Both seem to provide a pirated of a copyrighted show. The key difference between the sharing of American television shows and Japanese Anime is the spirit in which those files are created. An American Movie is ripped before it is even aired with the intention of people watching it without paying for anything rather than going to a legitimate movie theater. Fansub provides people with shows they could not see anywhere else, or would have to wait an unusual amount of time for. While the spirit may be different the effect may be more similar than at a cursory glance. When the MPAA has brought down suits against people who have been accused of file-sharing, often similar results occur as to those with Media Factory. Sales drop off causing more damage than the alleged damage caused by sharing of the files. While I would tend to agree that the sharing of American Shows within America does constitute a violation of copyright and may be wrong ethically, economically it may actually be providing a market similar to that being created for Anime.
One of the most interesting properties about the file-sharing system BitTorrent is the way in which a product that is supposedly disrupting the economy is actually in some way mimicking it. As described before downloaders of a file upload the file as they download and can continue upload the file even while it is being played. Common upload etiquette is to upload a file until you have uploaded the file's size or have been uploading for 24 hours. The payoff to uploading can lead to faster download rates allowing people to get what they want even faster. These upload/download ratios are often stored on tracker websites and some sites will even restrict access to their torrents unless a certain ratio is kept. This encourages people to upload which in term keeps the entire BitTorrent system alive. If people do not upload a file, it's seed “dies”, and it can be near to impossible to obtain the file. This parallels our economy if seeders are considered to be spending money or resources, and leechers are taking services. If enough money or resources does not flood the system, the system dies and a product or file is no longer produced. Similarly, if there is a high demand for a file, the higher the amount of uploading a person will do in order to get that file. A lot of this happens automatically through BitTorrent clients such as BitComet and ABC, but the analogy still is very valid.
Lastly I'd like to comment on several possible solutions or improvements that could be made to Fansub system and the Anime Licensing system that will encourage the purchasing of legitimate releases, while still taking advantage of the promotion Fansub provides. One of the major deterrents to the legitimate purchase of Anime, and many American movies is the inordinately high cost of DVD's. To purchase an entire Anime series, most of which range around 26 episodes, costs between $100-$150 dollars if the box set is purchased, and $30 for 4-5 episodes individually. This price puts it beyond the range of most college students who would be the chief market, as well as those most prone to seek alternative sources such as Fansub. I do believe that people would pay a more reasonable price for the Anime as in this example. A season of The Simpsons contains roughly 22 episodes (except for the first), and cost about $40. The Simpsons makes for a good example because it is animated with all of the extra costs involved and is in fact an Asian export (the animation being done in Korea). If Anime cost more in this range, with perhaps a $5 - $10 increase to account for added language tracks and import fees, I believe that more people would purchase legitimate copies.
In conclusion, while Fansub at first glance seems to have the potential to disrupt both American and Japanese markets, this has not been the case. Fansub serves in fact as a marketing tool, both to get people interested in a show, and determine what has the best chance of being well accepted in the United States. While the practice is technically illegal it is widely accepted for these reasons and the general good behavior of most groups that produce Fansubs. While the situation may not last forever, unlike the MPAA, Japanese animation companies seem interested in letting sleeping dogs lie and obtaining what benefit they can from this phenomenon. While it is unlikely the MPAA will follow suit, it may have to make some of the same considerations both in the price of their product and how strictly they will enforce their copyrights.