[Editorial Tuesday] Fansubs: Do They Really Help Or Hurt The Industry?

one piece fansubs

One Piece Fansubs

For many anime fans out there, there is a strong possibility that you get your exposure to the hottest anime currently broadcasting in Japan through fansubs (which of course have yet to be licensed in your respective nation of residence). I am positive every anime fan has experience with fansubs, so don't feel shy or ashamed about it.

However, even before the advent of the Internet, back in the days of VHS, fansubs were still around. With broadband Internet making things faster and more convenient than ever, the practice and debate continues to this very day at an escalating rate.

Isn’t it piracy?

Before I continue, I would like to disclaim that I am by no means the ultimate authority on copyright law. In terms of piracy, it is a very difficult question to give a definite “yes” or “no” answer to, when it comes to the true intent, but you can debate all that in the comments box.

Some say “yes”, some say “no”. Japan and many countries have different copyright laws, and the way most fansubbers ethically operate shows an intention to make a win-win situation for everyone, but is that always the case? Originally, fansubs were always something along the lines of a university project for “educational” and “private” purposes, no profits were made, and it fell under the definition of fair use by U.S. laws. Fansubs were simply born out of necessity, due to the fact that there were no means of legitimately obtaining them.

Over ten years ago, this rule was disgustingly violated and made fansubs look bad. Anime Junkies, a fansub group, was doing their own release of the “Ninja Scroll” TV series prior to the official U.S. release. Because Urban Vision, an American based company, helped fund and produce the series, they had the rights to distribute it.

Initially, the company respectfully requested the group to stop distribution only for the fansub group to reply with threatening messages. However, the person who did request on behalf of UV did acknowledge the benefits of fansubs and thought they generally operated within respectful boundaries.

But to go back to the original question, try to imagine yourself in the 1990s. If you record a TV program onto a VHS tape and let a friend borrow it to copy, and then that friend does the same and so on, is that considered breaking the law? Plus, that individual isn't making any money.

Do you think Internet fansubs are a digital extension of that? Does the fact that nobody pays anything, and the fansub groups make no money justify the use of fansubs? That’s where the situation becomes a hot debate and a moral conflict.

The Beginning VHS Days

As previously written, fansubs have actually been around as early as the 1980s. In those days, there were little to no distributors for Japanese animation in North America. Granted, there were some titles that came to the U.S. during that time such as “Robotech,” “Flying House,” “Transformers,” and “Voltron,” but they were largely altered from their original source materials to suit American audiences, and their Japanese origins were largely removed.

An extreme example of this is (then again, I'm an old man, so some of you youngsters reading probably don't know) the old western release of “Naussica,” or otherwise released as “Warriors of the Wind,” that even Miyazaki admitted to disliking. As a matter of fact, the heavy westernization and editing of “Naussica” in its very first U.S. release is why Studio Ghibli no longer wanted to license their titles overseas for the longest time, and other Japanese studios followed suit.

As a result, Japanese animation in the U.S. hit a wall (no, it wasn't a kabedon), and its small but hardcore fan base decided they had to find other ways to get anime and share it with others. With computer technology progressing with graphical user interface operating systems, fans mostly consisting of college students majoring in Japanese managed to get VHS and/or Lasderdisc releases from Japan, and make their own subtitled editions (with software such as SubStation Alpha which is still in use to this day) to share with anime clubs either within their university or local comic shop.

As a matter of fact, my first exposure to fansubs was through these anime clubs at local comic book shops back in 1996, and I was 12. As one of the youngest members (while the rest of the group consisted of college students, graduate students and other full grown adults), it was rather comforting to know that my then new found hobby was by no means childish, and that there was a world of anime beyond what I could buy or rent (I saw “Slam Dunk,” “Escaflowne,” “Macross 7,” and “Tekkaman Blade”).

Little by little, fans were increasing, and an individual saw the potential in anime through the fansub scene. As the story goes, this encouraged the person to start ADV Films, one of the very first big name anime distributors in the U.S. Its business worked by getting the rights to distribute for-profit through the original studios.

As time went on, more official distributors opened up shop. Still, fansubs were the main contributors in terms of getting people interested in anime not yet in America. They also were a means to build interest, to get the legitimate distributors to license them so in turn, these same fans could legally buy the product and officially support the series. Most fansub releases even to this day all disclaim that the fansubs are free and that if or when it gets licensed, viewers should go out and buy it.

fansubs vhs

Dragonball Z VHS

What increased the VHS fansub demand in the late-1990s was the hiatus of “Sailor Moon” and “Dragon Ball Z.” A few years before Toonami brought them back with new episodes, the fan bases of those respective series wanting to see more, resorted to seeking VHS fansubs of what had yet to be released (then again, nobody knew if they were going to get new episodes back in those days).

Did the fansub community help out by increasing and maintaining these fanbases? Maybe they did, maybe they didn't, but leaving people unsure they could see their favorite anime on TV again, can really make them resort to other means, out of desperateness. Regardless, those respective shows managed to find mainstream success worldwide, which continues to this very day.

The Internet

sailormoon fansubs

When dial-up Internet started up back in the mid-1990s, people got fansub tapes through old anime forums, and some of these sites could be accessed through the Anime Web Turnpike (any of you readers out there old enough to remember the anipike?). Since the beginning, the fansub code was of course not to make any profit and to stop distributing once the title had been licensed.

It still holds to this very day. However, since there were no torrent sites back in the day, if a person sent some VHS tapes to one fansub group and pay for the shipping and handling, it was a done deal. Today, fans can go on any dedicated torrent site and get a 50 episode series within two hours or less, and they don't have to pay anything while the fansub group does not make a profit. But the question remains, does it still make it ok?

Why do people watch fansubs?

The main reason to watch fansubs today is no different from nearly 30 years ago: to find an anime that appeals to oneself, and in the event it gets licensed, it encourages people to buy it and support the creators. In some instances, people do buy it and in some instances they don’t.

As for the number one reason why people do not buy anime, they claim that they can't afford it. Is that really a legitimate justification to watch fansubs or download anime (that has already been licensed)? If you look at DVD prices today compared to the VHS days, countless fans from that period will strongly beg to differ.

Back in 1995, a three episode VHS tape of “Bubblegum Crisis” would cost $75 while the DVD box set today costs $35 for the entire series. So today, you would be saving $265 if you were to buy “Bubblegum Crisis.” Heck, I remember hentai VHS tapes costing around $100 (which is another story in itself). Still think anime is expensive? Let’s not get into Japanese prices.

bubblegum crisis vhs fansub

VHS tape of “Bubblegum Crisis”

A more understandable viewpoint is for those that live in countries that don't distribute anime. They also claim it is next to impossible to import the DVDs as well. Since I don't live in some of those countries, I can't take into account the validity of such claims but the residents of some European and South Asian countries say the only way they can see anime is through fansubs. If true, maybe it is a legitimate reason, maybe it isn’t.

Further to that previous reasoning, people will watch fansubs because that respective anime is not all licensed and/or distributed in their country, which falls under the fansub code of ethics. There are some anime out there that have been fansubbed since the VHS days that in turn, have not seen the light of day outside of Japan. One perfect example is “Macross 7.”

Unfortunately, politics with Harmony Gold and the property rights of the soundtrack have caused various complications in getting it legally licensed. Sometimes, the studio demands a lot of money for a series and the American distribution company can’t pay the fee. Licensing an anime is a very complicated process and it is something that can be it’s own editorial.

Opposition Within The Industry

In a commercial or academic sense, there has really been no universal and/or formal study on the effects of fansubs of anime in America, Japan, or any other country. Even though there are studies out there that confirm that piracy helped the hit HBO show “Game of Thrones,” that shouldn’t be a means of confirming whether or not the same results extend to fansubs.

ADV licensed “Rurouni Kenshin” due to its popularity through fansubs showing some positive effects. ADV was created as a result of the fans that increased thanks to fansubs in the early-1990s. However, if there has been one outspoken critic of fansubs within the western anime industry, it is English dub actor, Greg Ayers, and he has hosted panels in regards to the negatives of fansubs.

fansubs gregayers

English dub actor, Greg Ayers

He claims it discourages people from officially supporting the shows, which in effect, make the industry lose money. As an alternative, he has told fans to buy the Japanese DVDs. The problem is, those DVDs will cost a whole lot more (in the case of Japanese prices, the whole anime-is-expensive argument holds water). Additionally, they will not have English subs, and many households and retailers do not have players that read Japanese DVDs (then again, there is Blu-ray which shares the same region coding as the US). Many haters on the Internet have negatively reacted to his stance but on the other hand, nobody's made any official pie charts on the true effects.

As for anime losing its audience in Japan and the need to rely on western audiences, some Japanese pop culture experts and sociologists point out that because of Japan’s declining birth rate for the past twenty years (and in turn its ageing population), the domestic audience is decreasing, and thus why it now seeks an international audience.

Thanks to free Internet broadcasted anime, most notably “Sailor Moon Crystal,” the industry can achieve that. The fact that it is broadcasted simultaneously, subtitled in numerous languages means that fansubs are no longer necessary, and everybody wins.

Has the intention of fansubs at all helped the industry?

With today's Internet technology and how fast an episode can have a (sometimes adequate) quality translation within hours of its broadcast in Japan, this can still help to increase fanbases. But with the increase of legal services such as Crunchyroll, which also release subtitled anime right after its broadcast in Japan, maybe fansubs will become unnecessary within a few years.

Are such services a result of fansubs? Who knows? It is an undisputed fact that many anime fans are exposed through fansubs and now more than ever. Its intentions may be noble but should not be abused.

Justin

Writer

Author: Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty

Hello, I am originally from the states and have lived in Japan since 2009. Though I watched Robotech and Voltron as a child, I officially became an anime fan in 1994 through Dragon Ball Z during a trip to the Philippines. In addition to anime, I also love tokusatsu, video games, music, and martial arts. よろしくお願いします

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