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Fansubs: Killing the Industry? PDF Print E-mail
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Friday, 14 December 2007 02:01

You've probably noticed that I haven't been reviewing fansubs of late - I think it's probably been around 6 months since the last review of one appeared on the site, and it's longer than that again since I actually downloaded one. Looking at the recent flurry of comment on what fansubs appear to be doing to the anime industry, triggered by Justin Sevakis' letter posted to ANN, I'm beginning to get a slightly righteous feeling about that - even though I never made a real decision not to do fansubs and longer. I just found I didn't have time for them anymore.

Evidence is growing, though, that something will soon need to be done to deal with the freeloaders if we're to have a hobby to follow in a few years time. Read on for the details.

Justin Sevakis used to work for Central Park Media, and has since gone on to work in other anime-related businesses. His open letter painted a bleak image of the anime industry today:

The decline of the anime industry and the influence of fansubs on said decline is probably the most talked-about issue in the scene today. The pros have discussed it worriedly amongst themselves for years, but only recently are they speaking out about its damaging effects. Every time they do, and we post about it here on ANN, there's a firestorm of debate about exactly how bad fans should feel about downloading. Occasionally, industry people will pop in to argue for more guilt.

I understand the panic going on. I've seen the numbers myself. They're terrifying. It's not uncommon now for a DVD to not even make back the cost of the dubbing, let alone the license fee. When only a few years ago it was commonplace for shows to get licensed for $70,000 or more per episode, today a show can be licensed for less than half of that. And they're still not profitable.

Clearly, the business model is failing. People realize this, but nobody's actually doing anything about it. Rather than take decisive action, the industry keeps trying the same things it's been doing for years, and when that inevitably doesn't work, the fans who download are blamed. Which makes sense. After all, they're getting the product but not paying for it. Most people would call that stealing.
Now, while I make no secret of the fact that I've used fansubs - heavily - in the past, I've always been what I called an "ethical" fansub user. This is maybe a holdover from the days before I got involved in anime, when fansubs were rare and expensive and came on dodgy 5th-generation VHS tapes, but the idea is simple: watch it. If you don't like it, delete it, it you do like it, buy it when it's released in the west. I've always held to that, and with my DVD collection currently approaching 1,000 releases (a good two-thirds of which are shows I first watched fansubbed), I've put my money where my mouth is. The problem appears to be the huge number of "fans" who don't, and those people are now risking the long-term future of our hobby.

This isn't new, though. Japanese licensors and western licensees have been aware of the problem for a long time now, and have done little or nothing to address it - and that's created an expectation from "fans" that the free option will always be there. The only company to poke their head above that particular parapet, Singapore releasing company ODEX, has had to deal with a considerable fan backlash as a result. Again, though, Sevakis has an idea of how to proceed, if only the Japanese creators will let the licensees do it:

To effectively understand the problem, one must understand two things: why people make fansubs, and why people download fansubs.

People make fansubs for one reason: to share cool new shows they like. (There are other personal reasons, of course, such as improving their Japanese skills and braging rights.) People watch fansubs because the American releases take years to come out (if they come out at all). Once on DVD, they often have to be bought sight-unseen, which sometimes works for movies on DVD but is an unrealistic commitment for TV series. To younger fans, DVD's are also very expensive.

There is currently no legal way for any of these needs to be met. As the anime industry has not given these customers what they want, these freshly empowered consumers are taking it themselves. Therefore, even if massive, expensive lawsuits were filed against fansubbers, the problem would not stop. Stopping current fansubbers would create a market vacuum. Fans would just find another way (and, as Odex recently discovered, they'd be very angry as well).

Before legal action will be effective, fansubs must be replaced. THERE HAS TO BE A LEGAL, INEXPENSIVE WAY TO WATCH NEW ANIME IN ENGLISH. Not necessarily own, but at least watch.

ADV Films and Funimation know this and have both attempted to fill this void with television networks, streaming and download services. However, neither can offer a show newer than a year old.

There are myriad ways of supporting such a venture. A low subscription price. Advertising. But it has to exist, and it has to be easier to use than bittorrent. It has to show new anime DAYS after it airs in Japan. It has to be available to most of the world. It can't lock out Mac or Linux users. All of these are reasons people will use to justify continued piracy.

Only then, after there is no reason for a fansub to exist other than pure greed, can a few choice lawsuits against a few prominent fansubbers scare the rest of the scene into compliance.

DVD sales would also return to their proper place, as the collectable for fans who really liked the show and want to keep their own copy. However, as packaged media declines, media companies must stay light on their feet so they can quickly adjust to new technologies as they start becoming more commonplace.

This is merely step one of a long road to recovery. But it's not a step that can be avoided.

I'm a fan. I appreciate the place of online distribution, but as I've said elsewhere, it's not for me, and I want the physical media that I can touch, can playback whenever & wherever I like, and keep in my collection. It's unlikely that I'd be a significant user of any download service, in no small part because I don't trust DRM, which would inevitably be used. But if the existence of such services can save our hobby, then I'm all for it. What online services must never be is a replacement for physical media - but there are already signs that this may happen. In the UK, for example, ADV Films has made several shows (Comic Party Revolution for example) available through DRM-encumbered download only. That will never have my support.

I could go on on this subject for quite some time, but at the end of the day it's not my place to respond to Sevakis' letter - that's up to the industry, and to their credit they have been responding - Bandai Visual USA's Tatsunori Konno gave a brief response (that perhaps confirms that the company just doesn't "get" the western market), while Gonzo Digital Holdings' Arthur Smith responded with a very detailed view of the industry that's really worth reading.

I'll close with a simple comment: if you do download fansubs, just think about the long-term effects.

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