On Fan Translations and their Legal Implications
Let me preface this whole essay with a confession: This is going to be some boring, geeky stuff. If you are totally at ease with the idea of copyright infringement, fansubbing, and digital piracy, then you can skip this rant entirely. You’ll probably already agree with most of the points I’m going to make, which is probably how you ended up downloading material at a fansubbing (or as I prefer to call it, a fan translation site, since we do more than make subtitle files) site to begin with. Or maybe you just don’t care how you get your anime/manga fix. Either is fine by me.
Lately I’ve been inundated with comments by fans who are displeased by the fact that I have available online for distribution materials that are now copyrighted by Kodansha Comics USA. Rather than reply to each of these comments individually, I’ve decided to make one end-all essay detailing my opinion on the subject of copyright infringement and the ethical implications of creating fan translations.
First of all, let me make one thing clear: every single thing available for download at Miss Dream violates copyright law. Materials like the Sera Myu musicals, the Animax specials and miscellaneous staff and cast interviews, CD drama translations, any and all Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon (PGSM) materials, plus the entire collection of doujinshi on Miss Dream are all copyrighted materials that I do not own the rights to distribute. The only difference between those materials and the manga and anime materials is that the former violate Japanese copyright law and the latter violate American copyrights. Both are equally illegal offenses and both are subject to fairly similar punishments for the breach of the copyright.
And that’s just the beginning. Downloading these materials in raw format (Japanese language) is illegal for the end user, and these materials are illegal for me to distribute even though I am not a Japanese citizen. A law known as the Berne Convention, in which some 164 countries including the United States and Japan participate, make my distribution of Japanese copyrighted materials illegal even though I am an American citizen. But it gets even more complicated than that.
In order to create a legal, licensed translation of any material, one must obtain a very costly official license to translate from the parent company of the specific franchse. In other words, back in the day when Tokyopop was releasing manga, it had to pay a big fat chunk of change to Kodansha INC, Nakayoshi, Runrun magazine, and probably a few other companies in order to be allowed the legal right to release an English language translation of the Sailor Moon manga, on top of copyright license fees to even print and publish the graphics from the manga itself. In other words, it takes a whole boat load of cash to be allowed to translate manga or anime.
Complicating this further is the fact that only one license is granted per subsidiary company for an official translation. So that means if Kodansha Comics USA has the license to create an official English language version of Sailor Moon, no one else may apply for a license. Any other interested parties in creating an English language version of any of the manga materials must outright buy all of Kodansha Comics USA’s “shares” of the official license. In other words, the license must be transferred in full, with Kodansha Comics USA relinquishing all of its rights to translate into English any Sailor Moon manga materials. The only time that a company has ever let a license go out for transfer s when it goes out of business and the license is “up for grabs”, or as it’s known in the industry, “floating”.
The way licenses are managed creates a total monopoly on the formation of legal translations. Most of us learned in high school history class why monopolies are undesirable, but to recap: monopolies typically stifle competition, create an unfair market, and often provide a shoddy service at a relatively high cost because of the lack of competition in the market. They are inherently adverse to capitalist ventures and stifle entrepreneurship, which is the driving force of any successful economic market. Most capitalist governments strive to “bust” monopolies because they are so damaging.
The impact of the monopolization of the anime and manga industry in America is apparent. Walk into any Barnes and Noble bookstore and you’ll see what I mean. Let’s say you want to buy a copy of a volume of Bleach manga. You’ll see that no matter which store you go to, every copy of the Bleach manga is published by Viz Media, which owns the rights to the series in America for the distribution and also the official English language license. Now, let’s say you want to buy a copy of an English translation of “The Tale of Genji” by Lady Murasaki. I guarantee you that you will find not only several publishers for that title, but also various English language translations, all of which are legal. The reason that it is possible for “The Tale of Genji” to have so many licensed English versions is because there is no copyright on the volume, and there are no companies who hold a licensed monopoly over the creation of English language translations.
Because there are no restrictions on who can make an English language version of “Tale of Genji”, you can find a multitude of versions, with varied translation qualities, footnotes, translator’s notes, and all kinds of other extras that the translator may feel are worth including. Because of the competition among translators of “Tale of Genji”, often times the final product is of very high quality. The cost of a copy of the book itself also varies in price since there are different publishers who may choose to print on expensive paper and others who may chose cheap paper. What this means, bottom line, is that the consumers of “Tale of Genji” have a lot of options when it comes to purchasing a copy of the work.
Choice is a good thing. Not only does it provide the consumer with a multitude of options, but it forces the producer (in this case, the translator) to create a product good enough to compete well in the market. In the end, the quality of the product that faces serious competition is forced to be much higher than a product that a producer with a monopoly can get away with pumping out. After all, the monopoly doesn’t have to be sensitive to the demands of the consumer, since the consumer is reliant on the company to obtain the product, period.
Nowhere is the shoddiness of products created by a monopoly highlighted more than in the American anime and manga industry. You don’t have to look hard to find complaints about the translations of mega-hit series like Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Pokemon. And it’s no secret that obtaining these series legally on DVD requires the investment of several hundreds, possibly even thousands of dollars. Which is all the more puzzling, especially with the recent allegations that official companies are using fan translations in their products.
The situation gets worse when you consider some of the other things these official companies are doing, like making secret deals with other companies to exploit licensed franchises, manipulate their license audit payments to the parent companies who are owed it, and commit fraud to obtain company kickbacks for personal profit .
To be perfectly blunt, I’m not so sure that the “legal” production companies are really worth financially supporting when you consider their sub-par product and now their recent legal and ethical problems. I don’t believe that they really have the fans in mind; they are businesses out to make money and they view the source material as a product to be pimped out, in an economically efficient way that maximizes profit for them. Their handling of the market leaves fans in an unhappy place of high cost, poor quality, and no other options. If you are an American Bleach fan who wants to legally obtain what’s actually been translated into English of the series, you have no choice but to support Viz Media, even if the books are vastly overpriced and even if the translations suck.
Having been a participant in the world of freelance translation, I know first-hand how poorly the major companies in the anime and manga industry in America compensate their workers, in spite of the strenuous demands they make in terms of deadlines and cost cutting strategies. The pay is pretty low and the hours are long. The fringe benefits workers are offered are pretty terrible. Often times the people who work as freelance translators do so for supplemental income, and they do not make careers of their work. Many edits and changes are made to the translations by localization people without the permission or approval of the original translator. It’s a tough business to put up with and most people only ever do it during transitional periods until they find better work. It’s no wonder the industries are failing in America, and it’s not the fault of fansubbers. We’re just a scapegoat for their internal problems.
Another aspect of the monopoly on anime and manga licenses has to do with the financial burden the consumer must carry to receive the licensed product. Because obtaining licenses for distribution and translation are so costly, often times this cost is passed down to the consumer. In the case of manga in America, it makes a $5 book cost $10. American fans therefore pay double the cost a Japanese fan does to legally read the same material. When you consider that the age groups anime and manga is geared towards in America (ages 12-18), it becomes obvious that the most people within this group cannot possibly afford the hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars it would cost to read or watch an entire series legally. And to remind you, we’re talking about cartoons and comics here. Most parents are not going to give their kids the vast sums of money it takes to provide a young anime or manga fan with all of the materials they are going to want to read. Although many libraries in America are beginning to shelf manga and anime DVDs, the truth of the matter is that many fans are economically barred from being able to watch and read manga legally. Fansubs provide an alternate means for people who fall under this group (as I did as a kid).
A huge problem that the American consumer of anime and manga products faces is the fact that many materials are not available to legally obtain. In the case of Sailor Moon, the last season “Sailor Stars” was never officially licensed or translated by any company for an English release. For fans who want to enjoy the complete Sailor Moon series franchise, they have no alternative but to turn to fansubbing groups. Because fan translators do not possess the network connections in the Japanese anime and manga industries, nor the financial capability of purchasing distribution and translation licenses, all of the work they produce is automatically a violation of international copyright law. Not only are the translators breaking the law, but anybody who downloads fansubber’s translations, which are often the only existing translations available for the product, is also breaking the law as well. A basic economic principle of “supply and demand” applies here; there is demand for translations, and there are going to be people who meet this demand whether the legal subsidiary companies (who aren’t meeting this demand) like it or not.
The other problem with official translations is that they take a long time to be released in America, even after a license is obtained. Many American subsidiary franchises like Bleach and Naruto are several months behind the original Japanese publications. Fans just don’t want to wait that long, and frankly they shouldn’t have to. Although some official companies are now trying to get into the digital media market, they’re late to the game. People who want to read manga on a Kindle or Nook can’t get a legal copy from the American copyright holders because they aren’t providing this service. Fans who want to own digital copies of anime episodes have no legal means to get the episodes. Fansub groups, who don’t have the massive amounts of money and support that corporations do, manage to get entire books translated, typeset, edited, and published online in the space of a week from original Japanese publication. Some groups can even have entire episodes of anime translated just hours after its initial airing. Why can’t companies with way more resources and “skilled” workers keep up with the obvious demands of their industry when a few kids staying up all night on a Saturday with a transport stream and a copy of Aegisub can?
Ultimately, I think that all fans, translators or not, deserve to have options. Fan translators should have the option to create translations of whatever they want at whim, especially considering they make no financial gain from doing so. Fan translation work is essentially charity volunteer work. Even if a fan translator manages to recoup the cost of running their server, their time translating is unpaid, the time they spend doing technical work is unpaid, and more often than not they spend a lot of their personal resources to keep their translations online. This is not the case with official companies who make millions of dollars off of anime and manga franchises, where the bulk of their profits are derived from merchandising and not translation at all.
Most importantly, fans should have the option to decide which companies they are going to financially support. They should have the option to select the translations they like the best, and have access to translations for franchises that haven’t been released in America yet. Fans should have the option to read something online and decide to buy it or not. Current copyright laws and regulations make it illegal for fans to have options. They make felons of people who often have professional degrees and work in the translation industry who do anime and manga translations as a hobby. They make criminals of young kids who just want to read comics online. I do not support the law as it currently exists, and therefore I break it by releasing fan translations. At the end of the day, I’m a Sailor Moon fan like anybody else, and I want to share what I love about the series with other fans. I’m just bridging a language barrier.
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