In defense of Fansubs
Fansubs are not killing the anime industry.
But over the past few months, almost every discussion about the current crisis in anime always seems to center back on this cliché. I am amazed by it, much like I am amazed that some people still believe file sharing is the cause for the fall of the movie and music industries. The situation if far, far more complex and one culprit is not to blame. What’s unique about the anime industry, however, is that file sharing has been both its celebrated champion and demonized enemy.
A quick bit of history on fansubs. Back in the day it was almost impossible to get anime in North America. So, dedicated fans worked many, many hours to tape shows off Japanese television, translate and subtitle them, then make copies for their friends in the rest of the world. It was on the backs of these fans that the foreign anime industry was born. Popularity amongst fansubbers was and continues to be to a lesser extent a marker to distributors which titles to pick up. As we all know, in the past decade the industry exploded and tonnes of anime distributors fought for foreign rights to shows. But as this process often delayed the release of shows or was sometimes never completed, the fansubbers kept up their work. With the help of digital video and the web, we now have fansubs that are near-DVD quality and available shortly after broadcast to anyone with a highspeed connection. The theory goes that because of the quality and speed of availability, the enormous anime fanbase is no longer buying DVDs and so the industry is collapsing.
Let’s get some stuff clear. Fansubbing is 100% illegal. It contravenes national and international copyright laws. And unlike doujinshi, it is not creating a new product based on copyrited material – which is tolerated in Japan – it is simply re-distributing that material. I freely admit to watching fansubs, however, and I don’t feel ashamed. I do feel, though, that the situation is not perfect. There are solutions, I think, and I’ll get to those later. First, my defense for fansubs.
Would you buy a DVD of a TV show you’d never seen? You might rent it but no way you’re going to shell out even $30 for something you’ve maybe only read a few reviews of. But if you get to watch it on TV first – well, just look at the enormous success of TV shows on DVD. Things is, fansubs are not like watching shows on TV – no money is being generated on advertising or licensing fees. But an audience is being created and I strongly feel that most anime DVD purchases made outside Japan are based on previous fansub watching. That’s definitely true for me – yes, I watch fansubs and then buy the DVD!
Fansubs are also often better than the DVD release of a show. They almost always include explanations of cultural references as opposed to English dubs which often re-write these references for a North American audience. This really gets my goat because guess what? I’m watching anime because it’s Japanese.
Here’s the number one reason I believe the anime industry outside of Japan is currently in an upheaval – and it has nothing to do with fansubs. All the distributors seem to think that they can release DVD after DVD and the audience will just shell out money hand over fist. In a recent interview I did with Kevin Carney, Director of Marketing at Manga Entertainment, he told me that many US distributors have simply overextended themselves, releasing too many titles.
And the fan base just isn’t that big. As Kevin told me, “If you look at the top anime sellers of the week, once you get below number 7, it’s less than 1000 units a week [according to VideoScan].” And I would add to that that most anime just isn’t that good. Simply because companies get a license, should that mean they succeed?
But their biggest downfall is probably their insistence on the very costly process of dubbing. Creating an English dub of a show is almost like creating the show again from the ground up. Many will argue this is essential, especially for TV broadcast and appeal to a wider audience. Yes, but must every title be dubbed? Especially when, as Kevin rightly points out, “most hardcore fans only watch it [anime] subtitled. Unless it’s going to be a mass title, do you really need to do the voiceover?” Don’t forget that the audience we’re talking about here is quite young and – as the music industry has discovered – don’t have as much money to spend as you may want them to. “If you’re not selling more than 500 copies a week, it should be digital” and not dubbed, Kevin maintains.
So what can be done with a small fanbase that’s used to seeing its anime for free whenever they want it? Meet them halfway. Give it to them at a small cost. Get the fansubbers on your side and release subbed episodes online, shortly after broadcast, for a nominal fee. You could even sweeten the pot by offering a discount off a future DVD purchase based on buying the downloads.
This idea is neither crazy nor original as it’s already being attempted*. However, the current set up is still limited both in numbers of titles offered and sometimes by geography. Sadly, there are still too many people – like in the movie and music industries – worried about losing their own power and domination over the status quo to realize that the world has changed under their feet.
We now live in an international, real-time media world. Figure that out, learn to use it and anime companies will have a bright future.
*I’ve just bought my first, legal download of anime, Blassreiter, and will blog about that shortly…