Thursday, December 09, 2004

Beginning of the end for fansubbing?

Subject: Soapbox
My my, I sure wrote an alarmist headline there!

Don't panic yet.

Here's the skinny: Media Factory, Inc., a Japanese anime studio, has requested that AnimeSuki cease and desist linking to fansubs of their series. AnimeSuki is, of course, complying with the request.

Now, in all the forum discussions that have cropped up about this, there are two prevelant themes coming from the fans: "Don't they know that fansubs are what generates an American (if not worldwide) market for their series", and "This must be a conspiracy with ADV to quash the fansubbing community entirely".

Well, frankly, it's a lot simpler and less sinister than all that. Well, less sinister than conspiracy, but I'll get into that in a bit.

In my boring day-job, one of the aspects I deal with are the various legal ramifications of the things we do and display on our website. I am not a lawyer by any means, but we've got some sharp lawyers who were able to concisely explain certain concepts to us. And the gist of what's going on is this: If a company doesn't actively defend it's intellectual property rights, it's exposed to the risk of having that property diluted, and not having any grounds for actively pursing any truly aggrevious transgressors.

(I'm pseudo-lawyering the lingo here to make it sound like I'm an authority on the subject. Is it working?)

So in other words, there's the risk that they will not have as solid a case against the real menace -- pirates who burn and sell DVDs for their own profit -- if they don't actively attempt to defend their intellectual property against even the most harmless offenses.

Now that we've established the rationale, let's take a quick look at the reality. After all, why doesn't every company go after fansubbers and fansub sites then? Well, for one, the volumes hadn't really been all that significant compared to legitimate DVD sales.

Well, historically. If you look at the download statistics for the latest episode of Naruto, you'll see there's over 20,000 active users sharing it! That adds up! It puts us 1000 or so Meine Liebe downloaders to shame.

And does this fansub activity really promote or detract from DVD sales? Dunno. I don't have the numbers. In my case, fansubs have me lined up to make 3 purchases once they come out: Madlax (which in fact I've bought some R2 as well!), Avenger, and Gunslinger Girls.

But, also in my case, it could be said that I will not be buying Samurai 7, Beck, Mai HiME, etc. that I sampled and dropped. And I probably won't even rent them. Which is what I do now and would continue doing in the absence of fansubs. I might watch them if they were on TV and I had nothing better to do. And I'm certainly not doing the companies that want to license these titles any favors by saying this on the internet where anyone can Google it at will, because it might sway another potential customer to not bother either. The "word-of-mouth" kills the buzz before they even have a chance to generate it with their marketing machines.

But is that really statistically valid? In some ways, you'd think these companies find this sort of word-of-mouth extremely beneficial; it's a free market-test to find out what the audience will gravitate to and what is worth investing in. Granted, it's a rather fixed-niche audience who's tastes don't necessarily indicate mass appeal, but it's still a lucrative and growing audience.

And to get back to the main point, honestly, I think this is the core rationale, historically, for having allowed the practice to continue. The exposure to risk regarding intellectual property was weighed against the potential benefits of exposure to a wider market via word-of-mouth. But, as those Naruto statistics indicate, the balance is tipping. There's a lot more broadband availability out there. There's a lot more tech-savvy users out there. And there's now one-stop shopping like AnimeSuki where you don't have to be a rocket-scientist to figure out how to get a hold of this stuff. I went from "total n00b" to addicted downloader in the matter of days. It's about to become totally ubiquitous.

So as far as Media Blasters was concerned, they felt they had to do something. It was low-hanging fruit to ask what is essentially an ethical site to stop, because they obviously would. Was it a warning shot from the entire industry? Are other companies watching carefully to see what happens next? Do other companies have similar challenges lined up already and Media Blasters were just the first ones done? Was there some article in "Anime CEO Magazine"* that made everyone over there panic? I couldn't tell you.

(*"Anime CEO Magazine" copyright 2004 Kineska Publishing Enterprises, Ltd. *wink*)

So what's my opinion? Personally, I believe that there are aspects of copyright and tradmark law that are totally out-of-tune with how they were historically intended to function (at least from a USA perspective). At it's simplist, copyright was a way to ensure that a creator of a work had a fair chance to profit from it and be recognized as it's actual creator. And after that period was over, and it's origins firmly established in history and society, the works would become part of the public domain for the benefit of everyone.

But now that principle has been skewed in favor of mega-corporations who are looking to milk every penny from their "properties" in-perpetuity. And so smaller companies and individual creators are pretty much forced to go along with it regardless of their feelings on the subject, because those very same mega-corporations who are so adamant about protecting their property are more than capable of undermining another's if the profit potential outweighs the risks.

But what about my personal activities that run counter to that? Is it because I want to subvert the "System", that I'm some sort of rebel? Do I just want to leech freebies and never have to pay for anything? Obviously, the answer to both is "uh, noooo." Here's how I see it: My fansub watching is essentially the same as if I were able to tune in to Japanese TV and actually understand the language. My MP3 "collection" is essentially for me to be able to listen to a radio station that doesn't actually exist in my market.

In this "connected" world, the old geographical boundaries are breaking down. It's now possible for a person who's physically planted here in Western New York to watch Japanese TV, read UK newspapers, and hear French chill music -- all practically on-demand. I'm finding it exciting and invigorating, because I'm woefully underserved by what's available by "traditional" channels. I am the proverbial "niche market". And I don't give a damn about legal constructs built soley to protect profits, so if you want to make money off of me, you'd better figure out how to get me what I'm looking for. Because, in all honesty, you can make a ton of money off of me! Heh.

Funny how I didn't actually answer my original question, and turned this into a rant about how the corporate world doesn't revolve around my every whim. Hey, it's a blog! What did you expect?


Anonymous said...

Are you really that worried? I'm not really... I think this is something that happens in a million... I doubt this will be the beginning of the end for Fansubbing (or anything like that)... So what? one company claimed their copyright rights... even those series won't stop being distributed, they'll just not be displayed on the more "ethical" fansub sites like animesuki!
Do you remember that lame move by ADV, when they decided, out of the blue, to license Madlax, right before the last episode? Well, did it stopped you from watching it? You still got the raw, you still got tons of subbed versions of the last episode, you even had the facility of completing the [ayu] version...
This kind of piracy (and yes, let's call it by its name) will always be around, you might just have to look harder for it... but if you really care, if you really want it, not only will you find the episode on the net, but you will also buy the oficial version as soon as it gets available...
This might sound awfully idealistic, but I believe a loyal fan would do as much! I do my best to keep the anime industry running, but I definetly couldn't do it without Fansubs! :)

*** MartAnimE

Fellini 8.5 said...

No, no, no... the headline is just a "hook" to attract attention to my long and boring dissertation. *grin*
I don't actually think fansubbing will go away, or even if it does, I don't think it will affect me very much.

Essentially, I just wanted to respond to the various speculation and conspiracy theories I've been reading on various forums to hopefully distill the real reason why any sort of "crackdown" is happening. And that turned into an entreaty to the various companies who otherwise need to do the cracking-down to realize that there's a potential goldmine in the demand that's not being met other than by fansubbing.

Not that anyone in any of those companies actually will read this. Heh.