Fansubs & bootlegs & torrents–Oh my!
In my opinion, it’s not downloading that’s killing us. It’s [that] we stopped putting out quality music. We stopped giving the public something to believe in. We started just giving them, “here, take this, take this, take this”.
– “Kill”, The Kleptones (but likely someone else before that, as well)
Japanese image board 2channel and sorta skeezy anime/Japanese culture/porn site Sankaku Complex got into a bit of a tussle recently. 2ch called Sankaku Complex’s commenters fat, pale, sweaty American thieves and Sankaku Complex mockingly wrote up the whole incident on their site. What is all of this over, you ask? The anime-(near)-exclusive phenomenon of fansubbing. Fansubbing, for you crazy people that don’t go to the links I put in this blog (speaking of which, Sankaku Complex is very NSFW), is when fans make their own translations of different anime series and then use those translations to make subtitles. In this context, it’s also used as an umbrella term for the related issue of scanlation (Japanese comics scanned into a computer where the dialogue is replaced with a translation.) Basically, fansubbing is when North American fans find their own ways to get anime.
It’s illegal. Well, d’uh. Hence the source on the epigraph. The debate, simplified, boils down to this. Japanese fans: You Americans are thieves! Fansubbing is wrong because it’s theft and theft is something we all agree is illegal! American fans: You Japanese are selfish! Fansubbing is right because it’s the only option available to us that means we get to see high quality animated entertainment! And in this form, both sides have excellent points: theft is indeed illegal and there really is no other reliable choice. But, like all argumentative essays, I have to come down on a side eventually. Do I side with the people who pay the creatives, the artists behind my favourite series? Or do I side with the people stealing the anime–at great effort, no less–and releasing it in North America for free? My first article this year was about Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, which has not been licensed for release in North America yet. I’m a member at BakaBT. I don’t have a credit card. D’uh.
Theft is very hard to justify as a self-respecting critic and blogger. The creative people who justify my existence deserve to be paid for their work. Oh, right, I’m sorry, self-respecting critic, blogger and closet Objectivist. I don’t justify my own existence because I can’t write in a vacuum. I need something to be writing about to write anything. So why have I chosen to get what I’m writing about for free and shaft the people whose efforts I’m evaluating? Because, to put it simply, licensing sucks.
For those of you who are unaware, licensing is the process by which any foreign media makes it over to our shores legally. It first needs to have a license to be sold in our territory. After a media group has purchased the license to sell the work in question in the territory in question, they can do quite a few things with it. Let’s take an anime series for example. They can dub it and air it on television, they can dub it and put it out straight to DVD, they can put some good, comprehensive subtitles on it and sell it at a high cost or they can slap some bargain bin, blind-monkey-translation subtitles on it and sell it at the same high cost. Really, it is legally their property to do with as they please, including starting entirely from scratch and creating a whole new audio to go with the video. They can even cut up and alter the video as they please, if that’s in the deal.
And licensing sucks. It is a slow process undertaken by genuinely caring people whom you cannot blame for any changes made to the final product, even if they made them. It takes years for things to get licensed for sale. Horror stories of series without endings or middles or beginnings because the various products that make them haven’t been licensed for distribution. End of Evangelion took years to be released Stateside and featured a dub with arbitrarily altered audio. This is the conclusion to a series being sold as an alternate ending simply because it took too long to get here. Because licensing, as it stands, is a broken, needless, slow, bureaucratic, unreliable, changeable, rigid, obstructive and corporate system based not around what fans wish to buy but instead what non-fans will not be offended by when browsing DVDs. And this isn’t exclusive to anime. There are Oscar caliber foreign movies released on vanilla edition DVDs in North America with god-awful subtitles. There are any number of movies, games, comics and media that won’t make it over here simply because no one thinks it will sell.
Take, for instance, School Days. And we’re just talking about the anime. Despite the fact that School Days, the anime, has racked up memetic interest overseas on par with Squid Girl or My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute!, it has yet to be licensed. It has yet to be licensed, in fact, because of what makes it so interesting to people who would be willing to pay money for the entire series on Blu-Ray or DVD: its horrifically violent ending. It came out in 2007. It’s been three years of people online talking about this anime, fansubbing it, getting BDrips just to get the uncensored ending and saying “nice boat” to each other. And it still hasn’t been licensed because its content would offend someone who would never watch it.
Evangelion, to flog a dead horse, has one voice cast in Japan. One. One voice actor to one character since 1995. And that isn’t just the original series–that’s counting all movies, director’s cut episodes and the new Rebuild project. And, I’m pretty sure, video games. In English, there have been no fewer than four actors in the role of Toji. That’s four people to play one secondary character, all because of the varying licenses to the varying releases.
Can you see? Can you see why I torrent fansubs yet? Do you get it? The only guaranteed high quality work you can find online are fansubs. There are communities dedicated to putting out high-quality subtitles for series that generate a high amount of interest. You get to see new series at the same time as Japanese audiences with the same amount of hassle. You can pay the creators for this privilege–but if the people licensing simulcasts can’t drum up enough sponsors to be fully paid for, it’s not a problem with you if you go for the free route. It’s a problem with the licenses. Because licensing sucks.