Today in Fandom: anime piracy and how the anime industry is like journalism

Last week, Bandai Entertainment announced they would no longer be releasing new titles. This week, Media Blasters announced they are laying off 60 percent of their staff. It’s a sad time for the anime industry. And, as a person who just blogged about watching fansubs last week, I am feeling deservedly guilty.

I’ll give myself a little credit where it’s due. I’ve been dutifully paying my Crunchyroll subscription for over a year. I watch Toriko on my Hulu Plus account. I never watch fansubs for shows I can get on DVD or Blu-Ray. And let’s not forget all the money I spend on conventions, figures and Gundams.

However, many are arguing that it’s fans like me that are killing the industry. Just the fact that we watch— and therefore support— fansubs is enough. Voice actress Stephanie Sheh explained the problem on her Facebook page:

“To those #animefans who say #fansubs “create” demand for anime. Ask yourself something, if a fansub wasn’t available for a certain show, but you saw ads and commercials for the show, maybe you even saw untranslated clips of the show, are you seriously telling me you would have no interest in the anime? Come on people, be honest with yourself.”

Over at Kotaku, Charlie Maib argued against fansubs for a different reason:

What digital distribution did do was create a beast that demanded that content be available on demand, without cost. It created a situation where fans no longer supported the actual companies and the people who worked to secure rights, translate, redesign packaging, and get it to market. Why pay for something when you could get the same product with pristine quality for free on your computer?

In other words, the rise of high speed Internet and the instant-gratification availability of fansubs have changed our expectations about how we should receive anime. And to that I say, what’s wrong with that? 

As a journalist, I completely understand this. As somebody who works in an industry that is also often labeled dead or dying, I realize how changing consumer behavior can significantly alter the product. People believe information online should be free, so nobody pays for paywalls. In journalism, this means that we’re swapping newspapers for news sites.

In anime, it might mean more digital streaming— like Crunchyroll, Hulu and Nico Nico— and fewer DVD releases. It might mean fewer tangible products and fewer dubs. Maybe consumers will miss those things, and their dollars will bring them back. Or, more realistically, people will begin to see instant streaming as the norm. I think many already have.

Things aren’t perfect in journalism. It’s significantly less profitable than it used to be, and it’s a lot harder to get work as a reporter. And if they ever teach computers to write perfectly fact-checked, objective stories, surely I’ll be out of a job. Maybe this means I should be more sympathetic to the anime industry. But from my standpoint, I don’t see a dying industry; I see a changing one.

But despite my bravado, I’ve felt too guilty to watch any more Mawaru PenguinDrum since this all went down. I’m thinking I’ll just wait for the release, if there is one. If you were in my shoes, what would you do?


  • Dormouse42

    Well said, about the industry is changing. It, like journalism is changing even if people fiercely do not want it to.

    I was so happy this past week to find out about Crunchyroll. I had honestly never heard of it before. Have no idea how long it has existed. I’m happily going to pay to watch these shows I wish to see that they are offering. Really wish I had known of them earlier rather than torrenting fansubs of many newly aired shows. I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is apart from trying to buy titles that I like which are distributed in the US.

    Haven’t done much in terms of buying merchandise. I’ve been moving around so often the past 7 years that I’ve divested so heavily on possessions that I really only had things I really need or really, really want. Hopefully one day I can start doing so though.

    Do you, Lauren, or anyone reading this know of any place where it’s possible to buy MP3s of anime soundtracks as well as the singles that come out in Japan for every opening and closing theme (TV size is cool, but I usually love the full versions of themes from shows I enjoy).

    It has been a while since I have purchased any MP3s off of Amazon, but each time I have they ask me to take a survey and I always write about how much I want these songs/albums available. I *want* to pay for them.

    Buying the Japanese imports for some I have found is just way, way too cost prohibitive sadly.

    • Lauren

      @Dormouse42, how about iTunes Japan? You’ll need to get an iTunes Japan gift card to use it, but you can get a prepaid one on J-List.

      Also: welcome to the wonderful world of Crunchyroll! It’s cheap, it’s fast, it’s guilt free, and it even has news and a forum. The downside is that I have to just not look at the Deal of the Day, so I don’t buy it.

      • Dormouse42

        Oh awesome! I never thought of that. Thank you.

        I’ll look into it. I so love so many OSTs and opening and closing themes. Truly something I want to pay my money for. Especially if helps support the industry.

        • Dormouse42

          Hmmm…Trying to navigate Japan’s iTunes store using Google Translate, but having trouble when it comes to searching.

          Any tips or pointers? Thank you!

          • Lauren

            Sorry, I haven’t used it. But if you google “iTunes Japan J-List” I think Peter Payne has a tutorial.

  • Annalyn

    Interesting post – this is one of my favorite topics to read about lately. It’s hard to keep from watching fan subs when many other fans see no problem with it. Especially when the anime isn’t easily available any way else.

    • Lauren

      @Annalyn, thanks for commenting! I agree, it’s not like I could watch Mawaru PenguinDrum anywhere else but in fan subs. But even so, I feel bad since it’s the practice of supporting these sites that hurts the industry, regardless of which show I choose to watch.

  • Tommy

    I stopped watching fansubs a couple years ago after hearing repeatedly about how much it hurt the industry. In addition, I’m one of the 0.0001% of people who actually prefers dubs to subs. So if I want to watch a series, I have to watch it after all the “true fans” are already sick of it. I think anime companies have two choices – 1. Hope that the 99% of anime fans who watch fansubs will repent (fat chance) or 2. Figure out a way to get stuff available for a small cost right away.

    I like your take on it – and I feel awful for some of my favorite dub VAs who are now out of work (Stephanie Sheh being one of them).

  • Dennis

    I see a changing industry too, but I am also changing my habits.
    I can only speak only from my own practices. I bought more anime dvd’s when I was more of a pirate. I was introduced to more anime by fansubs than any other method. Really I never bought an anime because it was advertised. The only other methods for me getting into an anime was borrowing a friends dvd’s, renting it on netflix, or seeing it at a convention.
    My fansub collection is now my dvd collection because I bought everything that came out on dvd that I had downloaded.
    The funniest thing is I haven’t downloaded a fansub in over 3 years.
    I’d rather watch one of the 50 anime series that I have in my netflix queue, or watch one of the 3 anime blu-rays I got for Christmas, all of which I saw at Otakon.
    The real problem is not piracy but that people aren’t buying dvd’s or even blu-rays as they once were.
    The economy took a hit and buying went down. Also people are moving away from physical media content consumption.
    I’m surprised that a niche industry can support itself this long.

    • Lauren

      @Dennis, I find it interesting that you say fansubs introduced you to more anime than advertisements ever did. That’s a completely different argument than the one Stephanie Sheh made.

      I agree that I’d rather watch stuff on netflix than download fansubs. They’re more convenient and better quality, plus the money goes to the people who deserve it. But what do you do with shows that aren’t out yet?

      • asteriskCGY

        Because unless an ad was in front of a popular magazine or ran along popular tv shows, word of mouth moved further than any ad most anime companies could ever create did not reach an audience better than a circle of people who were better tapped in the medium could do.

  • CalebD

    One of the first animes I ever watched was a fansubbed version of Rurouni Kenshin. The fan behind the subbing had gone above and beyond, even including notes in the margins explaining details of feudal japan that I, as a western kid, would have otherwise lost. I was hooked, I could show my parents I was learning something, and the whole experience led to me trying new show after new show.

    • Lauren

      @CalebD, it’s too bad that fansub quality has gone downhill since then (at least in my experience.) Sometimes, they leave a lot of the Japanese words in without any translation, sometimes the translations are really subjective, etc.

  • Eadwacer

    First, people smarter than me have made the argument that piracy is the result of a failure to fill a demand. There’s no reason why subbed anime can’t be released in the US the same day it’s released in Japan. If your business model says release K-On! in Japan in April 2009 and in the US in April 2011, then the people who are FANatical about the program will find fansubs well before that. If you say it takes that long to do a proper localization for a dubbed version, then you are saying you’ve made a business decision to trade off loss of sales to fansubs against expected higher sales of the dubbed version.

    Second, there’s a difference between ‘interested enough to look’ and ‘reason to buy’. Anime is expensive, and folks don’t have a lot of money. If I can only buy four a year, then it doesn’t matter that I watch six others as fansubs. It’s not lost sales because I can’t afford to buy them anyway. As I get older and have more disposable income, I spend more on anime.

    Finally, there’s the quality issue. There’s only so many ways you can tell a story about a shy middle school male living, for some reason, alone in a house, surrounded by attentive females. There’s only so many ways you can build a story around fanservice. Get it right and you have HOTD, currently #4,500 on Amazon best sellers. Get it wrong, and you have Girls Bravo, currently at #16,000. Build a high quality series and you get high quality sales.

  • asteriskCGY

    Piracy is merely a black market filling a demand the white market has left open. As long as the market isn’t introducing negative elements into society (i.e. swapping a toxin for toothpaste) it serves society better to expand into the market rather than to denounce it.

    Pretty much all my opinion stems from this presentation I saw several years ago about piracy in general.

    Annnnd it’s 2 am so I should stop trying to post and sleep.

  • Justin

    This is the problem with that logic: we actually have to hope the show comes here or risk it never coming at all. If none of the legal companies pick the show up, then we shouldn’t have to wait until we know for certain the shows will be picked up. You should not stop watching Penguindrum because it’s not licensed–I say that you watch shows you like that’s legally available, but if it’s not, you can watch it anyways until it comes here. You should not feel guilty about it at all.

    Again, piracy is a problem for companies, but piracy is a worldwide problem in all forms of entertainment. Factor that with the other elements of stuff happening in the anime industry (not good business models, questionable licenses), the economy, and anime in general being a niche market (this is from a foreign country), the blame is not 100% on piracy, though it is a factor.

  • Joseph W Brogan

    I am at the opposite end from most folks – the anime/tokusatsu I watch pretty much stops at 1990 and has no market aside from megahits like ULTRAMAN, BATTLE OF THE PLANETS/GATCHAMAN or STAR BLAZERS/SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO.

    When I was getting really into tokusatsu and old anime in the late 90s, there were pretty much no fansubs available. It was either “grey market” traded videotapes, old VHS dubs in the kids section of video stores like STARBIRDS, TRANZOR Z or CLASH OF THE BIONOIDS, or…nothing.

    In the mid-2000s shady Triad gangsters from Hong Kong put out horrible quality pirate DVDs with horrible English subtitles, which were like manna from heaven for someone who was used to having no translation at all (or a Babelfish-translated episode summary from Japanese or Italian, which I resorted to to watch RAINBOWMAN and BALDIOS). Not having subtitles doesn’t stop me from watching a show, although I’ll be a lot more careful talking about it when I can’t understand most of the dialogue.

    All the same, traded tapes, HD DVDs, and digital fansubs are one thing when they’re alternatives to having nothing at all, and another when there’s a legal R1 version out there. The “fansub compact” as I always understood it, was to buy the legal versions instead of the fansub when the show was licensed, and for distributors to stop distributing fansubs available when that happened. That always seemed to make the most sense to me.

  •!/matty_125 matty

    Have you read this article, “Greed and giant robots brought down Bandai”:

    It touches on something a little deeper (and more-or-less apparent) than piracy. While it is an issue I think Bandai’s case is more of a slow burn on their part more than anything.
    Anyway, I can’t claim to have an answer.
    You’d have to have a crystal ball to predict such a thing. I’ll say this, the way the industry has been going I think it has a chance to either broaden their market before it does the opposite.
    I’d actually like to see them work together now that there are less distributors. Why work against each other? Also, they have to take a sturdy step to the Japanese companies about this issue. Of course, that is a easier said than done, especially when the Japanese companies are as confident about the western market as a wet paper towel, but it’s better than no market. …Right?

    • Lauren

      @matty, thanks for the link! I learned something new. I had no idea that Crunchyroll was a “former pirate site.” I’ll definitely have to read up on how that transition occurred.

      • asteriskCGY

        Pretty contentious one too. Essentially in the beginning it hosted other groups fansubs and charged adspace around it’s player. That grew into their own ability to set up their own fansub group, and then unlike One-manga (a manga hosting site that did about the same thing) leveraged their way as a point of interest for online anime content, as opposed to being shut down.

        During that time I can say 4chan anime denizens were highly against the concept of anime streaming, including Youtube, mostly around quality contentions and the use of a fansub group’s work for their own profit. Course all that criticism was just opinion and at most there was one fansub group that was created soley for the sake of ripping content off CR. The rest is history.

  • Nathan

    I first got into anime myself by downloading a fansub of Zoids Genesis and ever since then I have been hooked. Basically all the shows I watch initially are fansubs and in doing that I have built up quit a large collection.

    In saying that I do live in Australia where anime seems to be rarely licensed/released and if it is it’s mostly on DVD, I settle for nothing less than blu ray quality. If I watch a show that I really enjoy I will make an effort to by the media no matter what the cost, an example would be Clannad which I purchased both box sets for $800 each from japan (If all the anime that was released in japan had English subs I would have no money left).

    I have quit a collection of blu ray’s and if I like a series a lot I will even bring myself to purchase blu-rays from japan without subs, now keep in mind that I cannot understand nor read Japanese and the only reason I would do this is because I know it’s possible with enough effort to mix fansubs into the media itself after copying it to my PC, if this were not possible there is no way I could bring myself to spend that amount of money on the media.

    When I first heard of Crunchyroll a while back I was very much interested in it and would have been more than happy to spend the money to support anime however, the one thing stopping me from using this service is this: “Sorry, due to licensing limitations, videos are unavailable in your region.” words cannot describe how much this p$#ses me off. This does not apply to all anime on the site but it’s enough for me not to go with them.

    In the end all I can do is download the fansubs and later attempt to locate the media (with subs if possible) if I deem it worth spending $100+ on, which I do quit often but have to restrain myself sometimes.

  • Kat Clements

    As someone who only recently started having internet fast enough to stream video in any decent quality, the idea of being able to watch anime through the internet that doesn’t freeze every five seconds or isn’t pixelated is a wonderful one. However, I do understand that fansubs can pull money away from the industry. Like you said, why pay for it when one can get it for free?

    In a way, watching fansubs online is a little like renting movies from the library. At my library, people rent things for free. We rely on donations and support from the state to keep offering our services. And, like libraries, I like to use online video streaming to preview shows. I don’t want to cheat the creators and franchise of their rewards, but I don’t want to get gypped either.

    I’m not rolling in cash so I need to be very careful what I spend my money on, and I’m not going to sink $20+ into purchasing a show if I don’t know if I’m going to like it. I watch it free first, see if A) I liked it at all and B) if I would watch it again. If both answers are yes, then I purchased a hard copy of the show. I don’t trust that the internet will always be present or reliable, so I really do prefer to have hard copies. I’ve seen people have issues with Netflix, had the internet crash and computers die.

    So yes, I will watch fansubs if I don’t have access to an official sub or dub. I am working on replaced the shows I’ve watched that way with legitimate hard copies. I spread the word about anime I like. And, rather than canceling or refusing to make new shows, or increasing prices so much that few can afford it, I hope that the anime industry can evolve with the changing media outlets.

  • seth

    I get were your coming from i suppose. But even still i shall continue to watch fansubs. I am on a very limited income and usually only have enough money each month for my bills and grocery’s. Further, i have come to dislike most dubs, and a lot of my favorte animes such as Tokyo mew mew, never came to dvd (and its dub sucked too. But this is just my own thoughts

    • Cassandra @The Huge Anime Fan

      You could still watch anime streaming officially even if you have to watch with ads. So turn off adblock and for a few ad interruptions that in itself is doing more of a benefit than a fansub. Those ads are the same as watching any other televised program. Just saying. It seems mightily entitled and uninformed for you not to do research on ways you can support even as a Free Anime subscriber on legal anime streaming sites. I am very aware of how blunt I am being but that is just the person I am. I don’t exactly sugarcoat things in life or go easy on people who can’t be reasonable.

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  • Toki Nakamura

    looking at the success of Sailor Moon Crystal, the anime industry has its possibilities through legal streaming sites that operate worldwide and if this expands, may eliminate many barriers and reach anyone that wants to watch a certain show. Here is my view:

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  • Hououin Kyouma

    There are two kinds of people: Those who pirate for the sake of pirating. And those who pirate to know what they want to buy.
    I’m the latter one. I’m watching fansubs and my budjet is low. If I like an anime enough to watch it again, I’ll buy it to support the producers, BUT I keep the fansub on my laptop. Fansubs have some good points: Typesetting, subtitle styling, notes, filtered video (a filtered TV cap looks much better than the actual airing episode), …

    My advice: Pirate, buy and keep the fansub
    That’s the best way in my eyes.