Editorial: A Question for Fansub Supporters

A message from the Tokyo Anime Center, released in March 2008, imploring fans to stop creating and downloading fansubs

So it seems that fansubs have become a big topic of debate yet again among Internet anime fans, thanks to a recent message to fans from Eric P. Sherman, President and CEO of Bang Zoom! Entertainment. In his message, Sherman described the state of the anime industry in North America, claiming that, if fans don't stop downloading fansubs, "anime will die." A bold claim to be sure, but does it hold some truth?

In the comments thread for the post, fans lashed out against Sherman, claiming that the North American anime industry might be in danger, but anime as a whole is safe and sound. Among all of the arguments, however, I noticed that there was a prevailing idea that the industry needs to justify its existence to the fans. Well I've got a different idea. Fansubbers and fansub viewers, justify the existence of fansubs to me!

That's my question: Why do fansubs exist? Why are there legions of people ready and willing to rip anime from TV and DVDs, add their own subtitle tracks, and distribute them illegally to fans around the world without permission from the original rights holders? I ask partly out of innocent curiosity, though I certainly am a personal supporter of the North American anime industry.

Nobody denies that fansubs served a useful (if not exactly necessary) purpose in the 1980s and 1990s, when fansubbers brought over series that fans would probably never get to enjoy. They were risking illegal action in order to provide access to a medium that had little to no American industry to aid in legal distribution. So if fansubbing exists to give fans a way to watch unlicensed series, why does the practice continue to this day, and with such high participation?

Surely 480p Hulu streams or free simulcasting on Crunchyroll (together, an ever-increasing total of nearly 300 series that include over 50% of each new TV season) is enough to displace fansubs, right? If the content is out there, fans don't need to turn to illegal methods, right? Or is this about something else? Has this become an issue, not of obtaining unobtainable material, but of acquiring material at the highest possible quality for completely free? You give an inch and they take a mile, as they always say.

But really, those are just a few of my personal thoughts on the matter. I swore off nearly all but the most retro fansubs a couple of years ago, so maybe I "just don't get it" when it comes to modern fansub usage. I'd love to hear some theories from both sides of the fence on this issue. Why do we still have fansubs? Are they serving a worthy purpose to fans? What would happen to the North American anime industry (and/or the Japanese industry) if fansubbing stopped altogether?


AstroNerdBoy said...

You may as well ask, "Why do people rip every movie that comes out on DVD or Blu-ray? Why does a show like Doctor Who get massive downloads by American fans when it will air on BBC America in two weeks?" Still, I'll offer my own speculation on the subject.

Even though places like Hulu, Crunchyroll, or FUNimation's use of its own video streaming and YouTube provide free video content, it is restricted content and anime fans are global. English is the world's "common" language since it is officially the business language of the world. As such, there are lots of fans all over the world who communicate in English with American and other English-speaking fans.

One complaint I know FUNimation receives a lot is how their videos cannot be seen in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, or anywhere else outside of the "R1" DVD region. These fans want to see new anime just as much as everyone else and with the Internet, anime fans know what is playing, when it is playing, and even how the series is being received in Japan (though with a little more work to acquire that knowledge). Thus, if these fans can't watch the anime being legally streamed due to stupid rules laid down by Big Entertainment and the Japanese licensor, then there will be fansub groups to fill in that gap.

Second, fansubs are portable whereas live streaming is not. The customer base wants the freedom to watch an anime episode when they want and where they want, much as they do when they TIVO (or otherwise record) a show. Streaming does not have that much portability.

The bottom line is that when it comes to music or video entertainment, those producing the materials treat the customer as "always wrong" and generally want the customer to take what they are given and like it rather than adapt and give the customer what they want while making a profit at the same time. FUNimation has been about the only anime company to try to give the customer what they want without attacking the customer base, but they are limited by the Japanese, who are fearful of collapsing their house of cards pricing structure for anime.

Further, most fansubbers tend to do "otaku" translations and adaption, which I believe the majority fansub watchers want to see (I could be wrong though). R1 anime companies always shunned honorifics and such in subtitles, save for FUNimation. However, even FUNimation has retreated 10-years when it comes to subtitles even though I believe it was their otaku nature as a company that helped put them over the top.

Regardless, there are fans who want to see honorifics in subtitles and when they don't get them or know they won't get them, they may choose to just go with fansubs rather than the official product.

This is all just speculation on my part, but somehow I think that I'm on the right track after communicating with so many different anime fans over the years.

IndigoSkies said...

To me it depends on the series. For some series such as Naruto or Bleach or Inuyasha that's available for free on Crunchyroll or Hulu, I'd watch the official subs because they're free and streaming. At times I do prefer fansubs - I like karaoke of the theme songs, and I like having things like honorifics and things like that - but I have nothing against the official subs. However, there are some series where that isn't an option. For example, my favorite series, Prince of Tennis: Viz released the first 50 episodes (out of ~170) in box sets, then completely ditched the series. It's getting put up on Hulu now (there are 48 episodes, so they're almost at the point where the DVDs stopped - I have no idea if they'll go farther) but without official releases, what was I supposed to do about the rest of the series? Just stop watching? I feel like after investing the time to watch the first 50 episodes, if you like the series you'd want to watch the rest, hence turning to fansubs. If fansubs didn't exist (though technically I think the group dropped PoT once it got licensed, they're still available through third-party sites) I wouldn't have had that chance. I'm not sure how common that case is, but I do know of a couple other series that have been dropped in the middle.

With streaming series, it's not as much of a problem, but I also would not want to buy a DVD of a series I've never seen before. Not every series is streaming, so I'd watch the first couple of episodes fansubbed first, and buy the DVD only if I really like it. I don't have the money to spend on lots of DVDs after all...

I also like having the episodes on my computer so I don't have to have internet to watch them, at least for a favorite series I watch over and over again. My internet is pretty bad and doesn't really like streaming videos, so I can't just decide "oh let's check this scene!" and load it right away, it would probably take like a half-hour. Easier to just click the video file and skip to the right section on my video player...

deaky said...

- shows for an aging fanbase are undersubbed in general, officially or fansub, so this is rapidly becoming a non-issue.
- the number of shows geared towards (or simply suitable for) an aging fanbase is pathetic.. just look at the upcoming summer lineup and tell us with a straight face that late-20s, early-30s R1 fans should want to watch them.
- when official subs are available at speedsub promptness they tend to be of lower quality (not always true, and getting better)
- we pay a lot for our broadband and cable, and yet have ridiculous caps and overage feeds in many cases. for what? stuff that appears to be lower quality, streaming-only, and still asking us to pay a privilege to get the content "a week early". then we're asked to re-buy the dvds and other crap to show our support later. we're not made of money, and the kiddie shows don't interest us as much as they used to.
- i don't know what kind of reasons those younger than me may have, especially if they like the shows.
- i wonder what would happen if the higher-quality fansubbers were outsourced to provide better and faster official translations? many want only recognition, imagine being supported as well? either they would stop (a win), or they would help (another win). they seem to know what many fans want, unlike the official providers.

DrmChsr0 said...

Because I'll never get any locally-produced R3 DVDs of the shows I want to watch, censored to HELL or not. Crunchyroll hates my country, and the American streaming sites are all region locked.

I understand the need for IP rights and all, but I'll just say this: the current system needs to be either revised or enforced with extreme prejudice.

Tim Maughan said...

"They were risking illegal action in order to provide access to a medium that had little to no American industry to aid in legal distribution. So if fansubbing exists to give fans a way to watch unlicensed series, why does the practice continue to this day, and with such high participation?"

Simple: Because there are still a lot of very interesting unlicensed shows out there.

Mononoke. Denno Coil. Kaiba. Trapeze. Black Jack. Aoi Bungaku. Moyashimon. Trava.

And lets forget the classic stuff that never got picked up, or has fallen OOP: LotGH. Future Boy Conan. Fang of the Sun Dougram. Patlabor TV. Votoms.

As always, this argument is based around the US scene. Some of us don't live in the US. Which means some of us (legally) can't get access to the steaming stuff. Also the US companies dominate the licensing industry these days (unlike in the 80s/90s) meaning shows like Giant Killing will never get licensed - while there might be a market for a soccer show around the globe, no one is going to buy it in North America so it's not getting picked up. Shame.

DrmChsr0 said...

Tim Maughan: And stuff like Xabungle and Sunred deserve at least some showing in America.

But no one wants to watch silly post-apoc mecha comedy and tokusatsu comedy.

Anonymous said...

Deaky: Fansubbers already are getting hired for peanuts to work for the legal streaming sites. Also, it's come out lately (though long whispered) that Tokyopop was hiring teen scanlators to work on stuff during the early manga boom.

Also, I really don't want "what fans want" on my official releases: it's bad enough that the subtitle track on Baccano, a show set in 1930's NYC, has honorifics all over the script in order to appease some angry internet forum poster.

A lot of fans choose the fansub they're watching based on how many flashy stars-and-rainbows karaoke effects they see during the show's opening credits. A lot of fans consider common words like "nakama" (and in extreme cases the Kisama Yatsu debacle) to be totally untranslatable. Or they'd rather put on a TL note (not that all TL notes are unwarranted) language lesson than actually translate dialogue. A lot of fans take scripts like gg's and add honorifics back in, claiming rebellion against the group's evil Americanization of their beautiful Nippon no animes.

A lot of fans have shitty ideas, is what I'm saying.

kimaguresan said...

First off, Mr. Sherman's rant was about piracy, not fansubbing (even though fansubbing is technically piracy). He cleared up that stance in the ANNcast he recorded the following week. His biggest concern that he felt so strongly about was the fact that the moment an R1 release comes out, rips hit the torrent sites. In the ANNcast he actually doesn't come down as hard on fansubbers as you would think he would.

My problem with streaming has always been about ownership, aside from the arguments about region locking, etc, I want to have tangible product. So I buy what I watch on Fansubs, if I can. My issue with streaming is that the possibility of a physical DVD/Blu-Ray release is slim, because most wouldn't buy it if they've seen it already (this does not mean every stream won't get released, but it's more the norm). I'm even willing to consider ownership of a digital file, but it would have to be DRM free, because I will not jump through hoops to play what I paid for on what I want to play it on.

Streaming puts too much power in the hands of the content distributors, and likely very little back to the content creator (not an expert, this is speculation). A good example being when Sora no Otoshimono was on Crunchyroll; shortly after the last episode streamed, Kadokawa removed the entire series. Where do I watch it now if I wanted to, there's no license for a dvd release, so alternatives are don't watch it, or fansubs.

The system needs help, but the R1 distributors are not going to get the help from Japan. They're too into protecting their high priced releases from R1 pollution, whether that be streaming or physical media.

Evan Minto (Vampt Vo) said...

Thanks for the great responses, guys!


I don't have any hard data on this, but I would think that the number of people watching anime via pirated versions is much higher than it is for, say, Doctor Who, due to the nature of anime fandom.

Anyway, I guess you're saying that it's a matter of small things that fansubs bring their viewers. right? After all, honorifics in subtitles or portability of the video are all rather minor features when compared to the convenience afforded by being able to watch the video in the first place. I wonder, however, how big a deal these things really are. If fansubs disappeared tomorrow, would most people watching anime online notice the difference?


(See my comment to AstroNerdBoy re: minor issues)

That Prince of Tennis release is quite a conundrum. If Viz announced officially that they did not have the rights for anything after episode 50, I wouldn't see too much wrong with tracking down some fansubs, but I guess there's still the possibility that they're eventually going to release it or something.

By the way, you're not actually paying for those streaming videos, so the ability to pull up any episode whenever you want, with or without Internet access doesn't really make sense as a business strategy. You can't expect that kind of functionality unless you're putting out money for it.

@deaky & Tim Maughan:

You guys are absolutely right in terms of obscure and older material. (Macross: DYRL comes to mind.) I just feel that the attitude now is less about bringing out things that have no legal release, and more about bringing out everything, regardless of what kind of release it has. The complaints about honorifics, etc. seem more like excuses to keep subbing licensed material rather than actual, meaningful issues.

@DrmChsr0 & Tim Maughan:

I absolutely agree about other regions. If a region is still stuck in an era similar to the heyday of American fansubs, I really don't see a problem with people getting their hands on fansubs. However, I'm afraid that, in helping regions like the United Kingdom, fansubs also hurt the North American industry and by extension the Japanese industry. (Not to mention that some Japanese viewers also download those fansubs, which cuts directly into the Japanese market.)


It's interesting that you say "most wouldn't buy it if they've seen it already [via streaming]." Do you really think that people are jumping up to buy DVDs after they watch fansubs? I know a lot of college and high school-age anime fans: They watch fansubs regularly and have never bought a single DVD.

[Apologies for the long comment. Just trying to get all my responses out there!]

deaky said...

Yes, I agree, and the tough part is that true "fan" subbers exist.. they just want to release "better quality subs" for a given old project, and have a tough choice to make: release only the script files, and hope their users know how to reencode their DVD/BluRay, or release something of comparable quality and hope the audience is at least capable of NOT blindly pirating.

I'm sure it's a tough choice to make as a real fan, because you want to support the project, but know people will definitely pirate. I'm forced to partly blame it on how difficult it is to supply alternative subtitles for hard-formats like DVD/BluRay.

But I can't blame the publishers any more than the fans, because I wouldn't expect them to know we'd want to supply our own subtitles at the time the media formats were being developed.

DrmChsr0 said...

David Cabrera: At this point, I'd like to say that gg are run by people who, frankly, are only marginally higher than 4chan. If you consider 4chan as the bottom of the barrel. So what they do could be construed as trying to incite hate or some form of negative emotion. If you really want a case of great translation/localization, ANBU's work on Astro Fighter Sunred would be a better example.

Vampt Vo: Also, this is related to my point on regions. In Singapore, if, let's say Bandai, wants to air, let's say, SD Gundam Brave Battle Warriors, they would not do it themselves, since the market is pitifully small (there's only one exception to the rule: shows that are airing on Animax. And even then, it's a woefully small number). Instead, they would hand it over to this little company called Odex, who would handle localization, packaging and distribution.

Unfortunately, said company has made one heck of a bad rep in recent years, resorting to RIAA-style thuggery (there's no other word appropriate for it) to enforce their copyrights. And it ended up with the court ruling that if any IP holder thinks their copyrights are being violated, they would have to come down to Singapore to file a lawsuit. (And that's why the owners of Crunchyroll hate Singapore. Odex.)

And since the Japanese companies are unable to rely on a third party to do so, plus the fact that there's another company who are unable to enforce their copyrights due to a legal technicality (almost all anime "licensed" in Singapore is NOT an exclusive, but rather a third-party sub-license from an exclusive distributor located either in Hong Kong, Japan or Taiwan), there's no way in HELL I'm going to watch most of the stuff online on TV.

And downloading anime in Singapore is a federal crime, which is quite ironic, given the small but "vibrant" cosplay scene here.

kimaguresan said...

@vamptvo Unfortunately, what comes with college and high school fans is a lack of money. Since I'm at the ripe age where I can yell "Get off my lawn" I also say, get a job. The internet unfortunately comes with this innumerable feeling that everything should be free, because it's there. Sadly even fans my age still clung to their third tier VHS fansubs of Kimagure Orange Road, and derided me when I bought the DVD set Animeigo released. I stress that "ownership" means you've contributed somehow. While I can't buy all the anime I've seen on fansub, I have also bought official merchandise from Japan, like figures, and such.

The most wouldn't buy if seen on streaming is true when you look at rewatch value. The attention span of most younger and new anime fans is fleeting at best, and one watch is enough to say, "yeah, I saw that." So if you think about it from the potential R1 dvd licensor's perspective, the market is saturated, and a wide DVD release just won't sell well.

R1 companies have made several course corrections to mitigate these things, like adding more episodes per release (half seasons, or full season boxes from the get go, vs. individual 3 episode dvds), less features, and yes, less dubs. All of these things are cost-cutting measures, but ultimately will lead to less revenue because of less overall sales volume, both from quantity and "fans" lost because of less features and less dubs.

I personally find those arguments stupid and childish and very much excuses, because if fansubs are good enough to watch, then why isn't an official sub?

I ramble a bit, but I hope I answered your question...and then some.

Oh...as a side note. Kimagure Orange Road was so widely seen on VHS fansub, that Animeigo, although they had license of the entire series + OVA + movie, almost didn't release the series because they thought no one would buy it. Eventually they pressed a limited amount of copies as mostly pre-ordered by the fans, and eventually did sell out of them + the extra copies purchased for regular retail.

Yumeka said...

I know you've already read my thoughts about this issue so I won't regurgitate everything I wrote on my post here.

As a few of the previous commentators have said, region locking for streaming sites in other countries is why fans outside the U.S. watch fansubs. If it means not watching anime at all versus a chance that doing so might inadvertently do slight damage to the U.S. industry, they're willing to take that risk.

Again, as someone else mentioned, portability and quality. When they have the choice to watch a better quality file that they can easily transport via flash drive, save for later use, and watch without Internet, fans will take it.

And lastly, the obvious reasons - it's free and it's easy. Most fans don't want to spend their money on something they can easily get a copy of for free with no risk of punishment. As I said in my post, fans don't feel guilty about watching fansubs because they would never spend money on the series even if fansubs were taken away. Unless you have a Crunchyroll subscription, you have to wait a week to watch the new episode while a fansub will let you have it within hours of its Japanese airing in better quality. And again like some previous commentators have said, there are still a good number of series, new and old, that don't get licensed.

If you haven't read it already, you might be interested in Desu ex Machina's post about this topic here: http://kevo.dasaku.net/?p=1270

kim said...

Every time I mention a streaming property that doesn't get licensed, it does; maybe I should do that more often. Congrats Sora no Otoshimono for being picked up by Funi.

Anonymous said...

Funimation charges 50 US DOLLARS FOR 12 EPISODES OF ONE PIECE, that is all.

Anonymous said...

Well, I live in the UK and I watch fansubs on the internet generally because they haven't been licensed overseas. I can't always access official subs because they are rarely available outside the U.S (as far as i'm aware), though when the dvds are actually realised over here I do try to buy them as much as I can to support the series. Though I have to mention I think they should make manga and anime more easier to purchase because you can't always buy the one you want in a shop due to a small variety. I don't mind ordering from the internet because I live in a small village a few hours away from the city, but I know there are a few people who still aren't to sure about it.

Josh said...

For me, if it's on DVD or streaming online somewhere, I'll watch it there, period. It's only when there is no other avenue of watching a show (which happens to be the case with 3 of the 4 new shows I'm watching this season) will I go to fansubs.

Otherwise, I think it's just mainly being able to stick it to "the man," especially when it comes to series on DVD or Crunchyroll, where they are pretty much available everywhere.

...Ed... said...

Methinks i have to agree with one of the anonymous posts here. If you are keeping up with a current running show, most people tend to want the instant gratification of a fansub within mere hours of Japanese release (or wherever it debuts). It seems to take a special kind of show for the average pocket change-scrounging anime fan to physically go out and buy the DVD, so it doesn't seem statistically likely that the regular demand expected by production companies will consistently be met as is.

As for the dispute between fansubs and other online streaming, speed and convenience (again going back to instant gratification) sets the latter apart as a more viable option. If you simply Googled whatever show and episode you wanted, chances are the main hits you got back included mostly fansubs, and probably Wikipedia. If such fansubs did not exist for a given show, most might automatically assume that there was no way a major site like Hulu could possibly have invested in it either.

To be completely honest, most of the anime on my computer is probably fansubbed, if not resubbed DVD rips,though I haven't watched online in a good while (DC++ ftw!).

Evan Minto (Vampt Vo) said...

A lot of your comments seem to focus on why people watch fansubs. I think it's been made pretty clear why they do (they're free, for one), but I'm particularly interested in the actual purpose that fansubs serve.

Now obviously this isn't going to happen, but what do you think anime fandom — in all regions — would look like if fansubs disappeared tomorrow? It's clear that fans from the U.K., Singapore, and countless other regions wouldn't get to watch much anime, and that old properties like Macross: Do You Remember Love? would have no English release for interested fans. But would anime "die"? Would American fandom quickly dissipate, and the North American industry with it?

From personal experience, I would say "no." The core anime audience might be angry that they can no longer get fansubbed anime as soon as it airs in Japan, but casual fans would simply turn to FUNimation or Hulu to get their fix.

This isn't to say that I want fansubs to disappear; as I mentioned, I think they serve a useful purpose to old-school fans and other regions. I just don't think that American fans have a significant need for as many fansubs of new series as people seem to be producing.

Anonymous said...

The U.S. isn't the only country in the world where English is the first language. The U.K. and Australia are examples of countries where the legal streaming of anime is rare or non-existent.

Secondly there are many anime which are unlicensed and will never be sold or streamed and fansubs allow fans to watch these shows.

Daniel said...

Odd that DYRL is the only Macross that gets mentioned in this thread. Macross 7, Macross Zero, and Macross Frontier are all effectively roadblocked for release outside Japan by Harmony Gold. Furthermore, while we have an official release of Macross Plus, the video quality is poor (interlaced video, and the transfer is too dark). Japan has a nice re-release with a sharper digital transfer, progressive scanning video, and nearly perfect color balance? With Manga now in bed with HG, I don't see us getting that new transfer any time soon. (HINT: There are rips of the Japanese remaster out there)

Frontier is a relatively current series, so I think it's an extremely relevant example that fansubs still very much serve a purpose.

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