Life on the Fringe

War of the Fansubbers

Is this the beginning of the end for fansubs?

by Patrick King

Over the past few years, the English-speaking anime community has been privy to a considerable number of industry milestones. We witnessed the first anime film to win an Academy Award, when Spirited Away beat out its domestic competition in 2002. In the past year, weíve seen the Anime Network rise and spread, bringing anime straight to peopleís homes with the first North American channel dedicated to anime. Manga is practically a household word, and anime is slowly starting to have more meaning to the mainstream aside from ďthose dirty adult cartoons from JapanĒ or ďthose cartoons that give kids seizures.Ē

And now, for the first time, the American fan community has grown large enough to truly attract the attention of one of the Japanese companies that provide us with our love, our joy, our anime. However, it isnít quite the same as the other milestones weíve reached. This one is downright awkward, in fact.

On December 7th, Media Factory (an anime production studio) officially requested the removal of all of their copyrighted material from popular fansub hub, AnimeSuki (

Now, technically, this is silly, as AnimeSuki doesnít host fansubs Ė they merely link to them. But thatís not the point.

The point is, we now have a precedent set by a Japanese company (as opposed to American licensees) publicly requesting the immediate cessation of the distribution and production of fansubs.

I find it hard to believe that any of our readers are not aware of fansubs, but for formís sake, Iíll go into the subject briefly.

In the beginning, there was anime, and it was good. Yet, as it was the beginning, aside from a few shows that made it to American TV (such as Speed Racer and Kimba the White Lion) anime was only in Japan. Uncut anime was certainly only to be found in its mother land.

This was bad.

With the arrival of VCRs practically a quarter-century ago, a few intrepid fans began to distribute anime that had been painstakingly imported. Sometimes, these shows were broadcast on Japanese TV and brought overseas, though there was the odd recording coming off an American station tailored for Asian-Americans.

As computer technology increased in usability and decreased in cost, some fans discovered that adding English subtitles to videos really wasnít all that hard, and thus, after spending some quality time with a Japanese to English dictionary, the first fansub was born.

There probably wasnít too much fanfare over the event, as it must have had a relatively limited audience.

Nowadays, the vast network of people connected by the internet is the perfect place to practice the fine art of fansubbing. With dedicated translators, high-quality subtitling and encoding software, and broadband distribution channels, within a week of a showís release a fansub can reach thousands of people, free of charge.

The free part is most likely the part that raised a red flag and waved it in the faces of Media Factory.

I do not personally participate in the practice of fansubbing. Iíve never fansubbed a show, nor do I seek out series to download. I have enough store-bought anime to keep me busy for a few years, so until my queue runs out, itís simply not a supply chain Iím in need of.

But then, I have to admit that Iím not a typical anime fan. I buy entire series before I know anything about them Ė sometimes without even seeing the box art. Iíll pick up something on a whim, with my only rock-solid standard being the price point. If itís not 50% of the MSRP or less, then I wonít buy it.

Now, I donít want to give the impression that Iím well-off because I randomly buy every piece of anime I see. Iím not. Itís true that I recently found a job that pays a little bit better than Waldenbooks (in my field of Computer Science, no less), but even before I was earning a real salary, I was spending a good half of my income on anime or manga.

Even with a real job, just like many other fans, I have college loans Iím paying off, a car loan, rent, insurance, and sometimes, I even buy food, on special occasions. Plus, my girlfriend is in med school, so while she may be bringing in the dough a decade from now, we first need to deal with the hundreds of thousands of dollars itís costing her to go to a hospital and cut up corpses.

What a racket.

No, the simple fact is, I really, really like anime. I show my love for it by buying it, and Iíd like to think that my obsessive nature pays at least one employeeís salary at The Right Stuf each year.

Iím not going to even bother getting into the morality of fansubs. On the one hand, I completely agree with John Oppliger, of AnimeNationís ďAsk JohnĒ feature, with his statement that anime is not a right Ė it is a privilege. (For the record, John was not condemning fansubs in that particular column.)

Copyright owners have the ability to disseminate their intellectual property as they please. If they so desire, they similarly have the right to ram what they produce into a little box, toss it into a dark closet in their office, and then not allow anyone who might be interested in seeing it to know it exists.

And yet, I also see the good fansubs have done for the industry. Sometimes I think I donít download fansubs because Iím not enough of a fanatic. This is coming from a person who orders about a hundred anime DVDs a year. I feel that a person really has to be into anime if he or she is actively seeking out the newest show from every possible resource.

Again, Iím not getting into the morality argument here. After all, it is likely that actions such as Media Factoryís against the fansub community will probably not help either group. Media Factory cannot possibly expect to see a rise in profits from this action, fansubbers will be left with a bad taste in their mouths from the experience, and true video pirates will keep on selling their HK DVDs with no regrets or repercussions.

And so it goes.

I suppose I should be glad that the fan community has achieved a high enough profile for Media Factory to acknowledge us. Iíd like to think that theyíve learned something from this situation. That is, people in America want uncut anime. They want it now, in large quantities, and they want it cheap.

And I just realized that this monthís column ultimately boils down to the fact that Iíd like more companies to produce more things over here for me. Oh, and if any of them would like to send things to me for free? Not only will I appreciate it; Iíll even buy it when it comes out on DVD over here.

Anything to spread the word.

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