In defense of Fansubs

home_taping_is_killing_music.pngFansubs 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…


4 comments so far

  1. Michael Eh? on

    In defense of fansubs… companies like ADV blasted fansubs until fans pointed out that fansubbers were doing a better job of translating. ADV solution … stop compalining and hired the fansubbers.

    I did manage to talk a person from ADV and they use fansubs to judge wheither they should license a title.

    Fansubs help build a fan-base for a new show before it hits here. Why else would fans cosplay characters of shows not yet released? Of course, it totally baffled me that BLEACH took so long to get licensed over here given the fan base.

    In defense against fansubs?

    I can say that I have seen it in my club … or lack there of. Like next to no members. I’m not he only one, York Universty’s anime-manga club had dropped to 8 members one year according to it’s president. Why go to a meeting when you can turn on the TV and watch anime -or- rent it at video rental place -or- yes, online.

    the early days of anime clubs were VHS tapes sent through the mail. Anime was rare and hard to get or simply non-existant. Now even the companies have grabbed on the ‘online’ revolution. At least they are willing to adapt to survive; not like the record industry.

    Heck I remember that ‘Home Taping is killing music’ BS. I remember a friend lending me a tape of an artist. I only listened to it once. I ended up buying 4 albums of that artist, the very next day.

  2. Molly on

    Oh I soooooo agree. Without fansubbing I wouldn’t be able to see the next episodes of Naruto Shippuden until anywhere from a year to 3 years. They still havnt finished the rest of the first series yet (at least not in Australia) so it is a godsend that there are people out there offering it. Free no less. And when I have enough money saved up then I will buy it. But I’m not going to sacrifice my need to watch the next episode, until I have enough money. That would take FAR too long. So fansubbers: I salute you. And as for the anime distribution companies: Time to enter the 21st century.
    Thanks for writing this article… it made me smile.

  3. Get your facts straight on

    click on the one that is on the activeanime website
    there are 6 nice videos to explain it.
    there will be explained by Mr. Watanbe, why we need to stop fansubbing. Around 5 years till there is no anime. The fact people stop supporting their favorite anime is a reason. To support an anime you buy it, not illegally downloading it. They are losing money. Don’t believe me. If fansubbing still continues and sales keep decreasing, you will see.

  4. Pedro the Otaku on

    Here’s the reply I sent to the previous commenter:

    After watching those Shinichi Watanabe videos, I’m sticking to my argument for a number of reasons:

    – manga sales are way, way down in Japan. can this be blamed on piracy? absolutely not, because there isn’t any. but I’m sure they’d love to blame it on something, but the truth is, it’s changing demographics, new forms of entertainment and media that is more relevant to the audience. that’s a shame for us manga fans, but it’s a reality. the same holds true for anime.

    – a downloaded file is not the same as a sale. how many of those downloads actually get watched? how many are deleted after only one or two episodes? but as I say in my article, that is no excuse and the current system is not the best one, and is 100% illegal, but the problem is far more complex than having only one solution (like Watanabe-san’s silly idea of only producing work no one would want to download).

    – Japanese anime DVD sales numbers are supported by TV airings of the shows, which is how they build their audience. as I said in my article, we in North America don’t have that opportunity. does that mean we are expected to buy hundreds of dollars worth of DVDs sight unseen?

    – also as I said in my article, distributors are starting to figure all this out. shows are now being offered – very slowly at first – as cheap, downloadable subtitled versions shortly after they air in Japan. I really hope this picks up and fans put their money were it should be, because this situation is ideal. also, I just bought the first ever (as far as I know) anime DVD without a dub version – Gurren Lagann subtitle only. it’s less than half the price than the usual cost and for those of us who never watch the expensive dub, why should we have to pay for it?

    – anime companies are struggling to find new talent in Japan. can file-sharing be blamed for this too, or changing interests? are we supposed to force a new generation to support an industry that is no longer relevant to them? it seems that many studios in Japan are now looking at foreign markets as a last-ditch attempt for survival – but if the product is not being made for the native audience, then it’s already dead in my opinion and that has nothing to do with file-sharing.

    – file sharing is the death of certain industries as we know them. old models of distribution cannot be expected to last forever. this is a bump in the road of media and entertainment, but one I’m sure will get sorted out in time.

    all in all, Watanabe-san is stuck in the middle of a very difficult situation, but has sadly chosen a scapegoat – watching him it’s clear to me he doesn’t understand the complexity of the situation. he may feel that downloading will leave him out of a job but the truth is, without fansubbing in the 90s, he wouldn’t be very well known outside of Japan now.

    more and more people around him, however, are realizing what the situation is and are making change for the future, not hoping to return to the past.

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