The Fansub Controversy
A fansub (short for fan-subtitled) is a version of a foreign film or TV program which has been translated by fans and subtitled into a language other than that of the original. As Tanya stated, fansubbing can be illegal according to copyright laws in various countries. Even so, it doesn’t stop people from doing it for as long as they can. Most cease fansubbing a series once it’s licensed for release in their language.
Fansubs originated during the explosion of anime production in Japan during the 1980s. At the time, relatively few titles were licensed for distribution outside of Japan, and as a result it was difficult for anime fans to obtain new titles. Thus, some fans, generally those with some Japanese language experience, began producing amateur subtitled copies of new anime programs so that they could share them with their fellow fans who did not understand Japanese.
In the beginning, fansubbed material was distributed on VHS tapes. These copies were notoriously low quality, time consuming to make, expensive to produce and difficult to find. However, with the technological advancements over the years, the original process has largely been abandoned in favor of digital fansubbing and online distribution. This has allowed fansubbing to transform from a slow and tedious task that generates a low quality result to a cheap, easy, and quick way to create a high quality and easily available alternatives to official releases.
Much like file sharing, fansubs are the source of controversy, not only from the companies, but between fans as well. Since last year, I’ve noticed a split within the fan-base regarding the attitude towards fansubs. Some who download fansubs will still support the companies and buy the official releases when they’re out. Others side with Japanese and North American anime studios and distribution companies, saying fansubs are drawing a large amount of profit away from them.
The Yale Economic Review’s recent research has called the latter conclusion into serious question though, as it’s shown that people who download movies are no less likely to buy movies than those who do not.
There have also been a number of shows that were overlooked for US distribution at first, only to be picked up later when fansubs helped create a buzz about them. One example of this was Azumanga Daioh, now released by ADV Films. In the summer of 2005, one of the founders of ADV admitted that they initially thought the series would not be popular in America. Additionally, Kadokawa Pictures USA and Bandai Entertainment specifically thanked the fansub community in the promotional video announcing the American license of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. That was the first instance of a Japanese company admitting and accepting (but not necessarily supporting) the well-intended piracy among fans.
Even so, anime studios in both North America and Japan have decided to see just how far they can go. They’re licensing as much as they can, and in some cases, working out simulcasting deals with the original studios and/or streaming websites. Simulcasting results in much less wait time for fans overseas and it benefits the studios much more than any amount of fansubbing could do.
In April of 2008, two series produced by Gonzo Digital Holding (The Tower of Druaga: The Aegis of Uruk and Blassreiter) began free, subtitled simulcasts with their Japanese TV-airing counterparts on streaming websites YouTube, Crunchyroll, and BOST. North American companies Viz Media and Funimation have also began simulcasts (Inuyasha: The Final Act, and Shikabane Hime: Aka and its direct sequel Kuro respectively) streaming on Hulu.
Also in 2008, Crunchyroll began striking legal distribution agreements with companies, including Gonzo, Sunrise and TV Tokyo, for an increasing number of titles. In addition, viewers may pay for the membership plan of their choice that lets them receive early access to the shows, and an “exclusive” higher-quality stream. As of November 2009, a large number of new anime are being distributed using this model through Crunchyroll.
The general reaction to this from the fansub community has been to not do these shows, though in certain cases the streams are released days after the Japanese airing and in subpar quality, causing fansubs to still be done of such shows. That said, the Japanese animation studios’ increasing support for Crunchyroll’s model suggests that it’s working quite well. The number of fansubbing groups has also decreased, because many people don’t feel the need for fansubs when they can stream these shows legally.