Call#: Annenberg Library Reserve P94.65.U6 J46 2006
Henry Jenkins has emerged as the leading scholar on fan communities and participatory cultures. In specifically addressing anime fansubbing communities, Jenkins presents a familiar argument of piracy actually serving as a promotional activity for anime properties. He notes that by the Japanese anime industry being tolerant of grassroots activities in the United States, “much of the risks of entering the Western markets and many of the costs of experimentation were borne by dedicated consumers.” This tolerance of fan activities represents part of a Japanese cultural tradition that permits expansion and engagement with media properties. For example, manga artists and studios have permitted the appropriation and infringement of their copyrights by amateur artists in the doujinshi market. Rather than viewing these activities as a threat to the value of their properties, Japanese companies have recognized that collaborative structures are important in “developing compelling new content or broadening markets.”
As other scholars such as Leonard and Kelts have noted, anime fandom helped build up a structure for an American market through experimentation with unfamiliar content and promotion of niche titles. Jenkins's analysis of how companies must balance fan engagement along with protection of their properties is particularly relevant to the ongoing controversy in anime fandom between fansubbing groups and licensing companies.
Justin Sevakis presents an overview of the anime industry's current decline in sales, which he attributes both to digital fansubbing and corporate reluctance to adopt new technologies. Unlike many other authors who have written about fansubbing, Sevakis recognizes a qualitative break between the VHS distribution networks and current digital fansubs with decentralized distribution. The internet has dramatically lowered the barriers to obtaining fansubs, which are now easily available at the click of a button on a multitude of streaming sites. While fansubs might have previously been a non-rivalrous work that served a promotional function for the licensed products, digital fansubs have effectively usurped the licensed market by offering a product of the same quality for free and faster than legal avenues. The fansubbing groups, however, are simply responding to fan demands for timely releases, which the industry has failed to meet. In order to prevent further losses and rebuild the industry, companies must adopt a digital model that provides American audiences with “a legal, inexpensive way to watch new anime in English.”
Rather than idealizing the cultural benefits of fansubbing, Sevakis presents a practical understanding of how fans and the industry operate in the digital market. People watch fansubs because there is a market vacuum that the anime industry has ignored for several years. Rather than providing a legal avenue to meet this market demand, anime companies have responded like many other entertainment industries by believing they can guilt their fans into sticking with a failing business model. Furthermore, the industry has confounded the size of the fan community with the anime consumer market, which in fact represent audiences with varying levels of engagement and interest; not all fans share the same buying practices as collectors, and indeed many are simply interested in just viewing a series once and not owning it on DVD. These considerations complicate the perspective of fansubbing as an activity that promotes economic and cultural growth because they demonstrate the real harm to the anime industry being caused by illegal reproduction in fan communities.
Call#: Van Pelt Library KF2979 .L47 2004
Professor Lawrence Lessig has been the most eloquent proponents of the Free Culture movement since its inception. He argues that recent copyright laws abandon a tradition of free creative expression that has existed throughout American history and instead impose undue restrictions that have chilled the growth of culture, especially at this moment when digital technologies have enabled audiences to participate in making their culture unlike ever before. Lessig was particularly outspoken about the failure of copyright to distinguish between commercial and non-commercial lifetimes of works, the latter of which is important and valuable for the development of culture. In this context, copyright does not fulfill its goal of promoting progress, but rather burdens free expression and does harm; access to culture is a value which the current market system and copyright regime have inhibited.
Although Lessig does not address fansubbing directly, his arguments about the value of access to non-commercial works can logically be extended to this domain. Typically fansubbing groups only work on unlicensed series, which are only distributed in Japan and therefore unavailable to English audiences. By prohibiting altogether the translation and reproduction of these works, copyright law is not incentivizing their legal distribution, but rather restricting cultural growth by indiscriminately denying American audiences any access to an entire medium of expression on the basis of preserving the rights-holder’s complete control over distribution even if they are not commercially exploiting the work. In this case copyright has not balanced the interests between creators and the public, but rather established a view of creative works as absolute property rights that creators are entitled to perfectly control. Neither the Constitutional basis nor the long history of copyright law supports such an interpretation, which has been shown to be deleterious to the purpose of expanding culture and promoting creativity.
Call#: Van Pelt Library E169.12 .K46 2006
As remix culture begins to steadily supplant traditional consumer culture, media companies are recognizing the importance of cultivating participatory communities in order to generate interest and merchandising opportunities for their properties. Indeed, up until now the anime industry has recognized the value of these communities by tacitly approving of their activities despite being aware of their widespread copyright infringement – fansubs, fan fiction, cosplay, and various other forms of creative expression have been openly displayed for some time both on the internet and at fan conventions. In this way, we can recognize that the letter of the law is only one part of what must be a multi-faceted understanding of copyright; many illegal activities may in fact be culturally beneficial and even economically complementary. In many cases the anime industry has succeeded by leveraging the creative social structure of fan communities. For example, series such as Pokemon or Naruto have incorporated merchandising models that capture fans' passion for expression and connection with these fictional worlds.
At the Futures of Entertainment Conference, several panelists discussed potential models for understanding the motivations behind participatory culture in fan communities. As a result of increasing access to the internet and lowered barriers to participation, audiences have developed an expectation about the ability to autonomously engage with the materials that make up their cultural space. In order to succeed, media companies must be able to meet these consumer demands and also effectively incentivize and reward individuals for creating value. The interactions between these fan communities and the media companies that attempt to capitalize on their labor is therefore framed as a “social contract” that ought to produce benefits for both sides. Many of the mistakes that media companies have committed in their interactions with fan communities have been a result of misunderstanding the ethics and ecology of remix culture.
An understanding of community dynamics is essential for discussing anime fandom, which has been one of the most vibrant and engaged fan communities in the United States over the last 30 years. Indeed, the anime market in this country developed through the voluntary labor of fans that imported and translated works that would have otherwise been unavailable to the English audience. The anime industry therefore stands in the enviable position of already having a well-developed community that is engaged with and interested in their media properties. In order for the anime industry to continue its growth and expansion into the U.S. market, companies must develop business models that demonstrate an understanding of the motivations behind these fan communities and utilizes them as vehicles to monetize fan labor. Although the industry is still in the process of developing and deploying a digitally-grounded model, companies have demonstrated an awareness of the demands and expectations that fan communities hold and are attempting to incorporate them into their plans.
This panel discussion at Otakon 2008 brought together members both from U.S. anime licensing companies and fansubbing groups in order to discuss some problems affecting the industry, which are supposedly attributable to the prominence of fansubs on the internet. The industry representatives argued that the wide availability of anime fansubs on streaming sites such as YouTube have significantly impacted DVD sales and thereby led to reductions in series production. Actual market figures presented include a drop in DVD sales from $550 million in 2003 to an estimated $300 million in 2007, while an estimated 6 million fansubs are downloaded every week. Fansub members respond to these claims by arguing that (1) they serve an important promotional role for unlicensed anime series, (2) they preserve the integrity of shows which have been heavily edited or censored, and (3) the industry has not presented any alternatives that meet fan demand for timeliness. The panelists then discuss some approaches that companies could take in order to address these issues, such as streaming simulcasts of shows and digital downloads.
Just like every other media industry that has experienced declining sales, the anime industry has also attributed these losses to digital piracy and filesharing. However, the practice of fansubbing cannot be reduced simply to that of digital piracy since it developed prior to the advent of the internet and in fact served an important and acknowledged positive role in promoting and developing the anime market in the United States. Furthermore, the transparency and codes of conduct within fansubbing communities are often proposed as a basis that justifies their practices and separates them from pirates. Although the anime industry has undeniably been faced with a contraction in sales due in part to digital piracy, any legal response from these companies must be targeted towards the correct group of perpetrators, namely the pirates and not fansubbers. Furthermore, companies must leverage the influence of fansubbing groups within anime fandom by working with them to provide legal alternatives, such as fansite-based internet distribution, that balance respect for creators’ rights with the demands of fan communities.
Joshua Daniels describes the negligence of licensing companies to account for fan sentiments towards preservation of original works as a market failure that can be remedied through an expanded Fair Use statute. He argues that society has an economic interest in maintaining the integrity of works, and therefore the harm caused by licensing companies that heavily edit or censor these properties can be understood as a negative market externality. In order to correct this market failure, Daniels proposes that the law must channel incentives such that licensing companies are forced to take into account fan interests in preserving these works. However, he also cautions that there is a substantial risk of destroying the market entirely if too broad of an approach is taken to remedy the failure. Therefore, he proposes legalizing fansubs to an extent under a right of public access to foreign works in their original form when there is no other practicable legal means of obtaining that access. In this way the competing interests of rights-holders and fans are balanced in favor of public access.
Daniels recognizes a demand for authenticity as a particular characteristic of anime fandom that promotes a cultural goal. Insofar as some fansubs promote this end, we may consider legalizing their practices in order to incentivize companies to distribute an original version of the works they license. Indeed, many fansubbing groups, such as Live-Evil, work specifically with older anime that were heavily modified when broadcast in the U.S. market. Daniels's proposed model, however, would likely create undue burdens for companies that are attempting to localize otherwise unintelligible cultural shows. While promoting public access to works is a valuable goal, Daniels seems to prioritize cultural over economic production when instead both concerns should be balanced.
Sean Leonard extensively documents the history of anime in the United States from 1976-1993 in order to demonstrate how fan communities acted as proselytziation commons that shaped the formation and initial operation of the anime market. Leonard defines a proselytization commons as a free exchange of media in order to advance a directed cause, namely the promotion of anime to a wider audience. While these fan activities infringed on the copyright of Japanese companies, the companies nevertheless responded with either strategic ignorance – that is, they sought benefits that result from unauthorized use – or plainly dismissive ignorance. Leonard’s legal analysis classifies the fansubbers’ activities as producing a desirable outcome, but not being sanctioned by law. Since current copyright law prohibits these culturally beneficial activities, Leonard proposes a revision that excuses unauthorized reproduction of foreign works until they are actually licensed and distributed in the domestic U.S. market. He grounds this revision on the early American tradition surrounding copyright law based on an originalist interpretation of “limited Times” and “promote progress” in the Constitution.
Leonard’s analysis of the history of fansubbing presents one of the strongest rebuttals to the argument made by many media industries that the progress of culture requires “perfect control over copyright from fixation to expiration.” Grass-roots distribution of anime through fan networks not only promoted cultural growth by acting as a proselytization commons, but also created a multi-million dollar market for these products as well. Therefore, the example of fansubs demonstrates how culturally beneficial activities that in fact meet the goal of “promot[ing] progress” are nevertheless unjustly restricted by rigid copyright laws. The fact that current copyright laws are in fact having the opposite of their intended effect should prompt citizens and lawmakers to consider exemptions, such as expanding Fair Use, that legalizes these activities.
Jordan Hatcher describes the fansubbing community as sitting at an interesting boundary between creative production and file-trading. He notes that fansubbers are guided by a cultural goal and attitudes that exist within the community itself, comparable more to the FOSS movement rather than typical pirates. After recognizing these nuances between fansubbers and pirates, Hatcher asks, “Do our laws stifle creativity and sharing to the point where it harms society?” While there are certainly cultural benefits created by the fansubbing community, there also exists the potential to replace market need for official licensed translations, thus causing an economic harm to the artists and creators of these works. He argues that a fair use defense based on these benefits, such as market enhancement or interest-building, are undercut by the reality of fansubbers' actual practices of providing a substitute product. While Hatcher concludes that it is still too early to come to any conclusion about the benefits of fansubs, he believes that the relationship between fansubbing communities and the anime industry will “reveal a great deal about copyright in a connected digital world.”
Hatcher challenges the model of fansubbing as an activity that creates growth and benefits for the anime industry by undercutting the traditional market enhancement argument that fans usually propose. Copyright should not be frivolously violated because protection of creative products is a culturally beneficial instrument that provides creators with incentives to produce new works. Therefore, in order to produce a culturally beneficial arrangement that incorporates the benefits of fansubbing communities while minimizing the harms to creators, both groups must respect the value each respectively generates and come to an agreement that meets their common goal of promoting anime. Such an agreement is possible because, unlike typical pirates, fansubbing communities operate around a code of conduct and thus have demonstrated a level of compliance with industry requests not seen in other areas of the piracy debate.
13. Kirkpatrick, S. (2003). Like holding a bird: What the prevalence of fansubbing can teach us about the use of strategic selective copyright enforcement. Temple Environmental Law and Technology Journal, 21, 131-153.
Sean Kirkpatrick uses the examples of fansubs and AMVs to argue that “entertainment copyrights works best if grasped loosely.” In his article, he undertakes a fair use analysis of both these works: (1) fansubs are non-transformative and are created for the exact same entertainment value as the originals. Therefore, the first factor weighs against a finding of fair use. (2) anime is a creative work and therefore falls into the core of copyright’s protection. The second factor weighs against a finding of fair use. (3) fansubs copy the work entirely at a qualitatively-similar level. The third factor weighs against a finding of fair use. (4) the likelihood of harm for either direct or derivative markets is difficult to determine in this case. However, since fansubs share their purpose with the original work, the potential for harm would likely be viewed as greater and therefore the fourth factor would most likely way against a finding of fair use. Kirkpatrick does not entirely concede the fourth point, however, and argues that fansubs parallel the Betamax case of time-shifting. In this sense fansubs, like taped television shows, are not used to build collections or libraries, and therefore would not impact future sales. Instead, he argues, “the interests of fans and corporations need not be mutually exclusive” and “cooperation is a far better way to promote the profitability of one’s copyright than bullying.”
While Kirkpatrick’s fair use analysis is mostly correct, industry representatives would justifiably take exception to the parallel between fansubs and Betamax. Not only are the technologies significantly dissimilar, but fansubs are produced for an audience that would otherwise not have access to these shows and therefore does diminish the value of licensing the property to distribute in the U.S. market. While these objections are important, they do not undercut Kirkpatrick’s conclusion that cooperation between fans and industries will be necessary to achieve the end goal of promoting anime, which is in everyone’s interests.