Saturday, March 11, 2006

Anime Piracy

An interesting article from Animenation.

Question:With anime fan-subbing and ways to obtain fan-subs at a high point, whether the series is "unlicensed" or not, is it possible that we might see some of the larger distributors begin a series of lawsuits similar to what the RIAA did when music pirating was high?

Answer:Although unlicensed distribution of anime for profit and not for profit is common throughout the world, I don't foresee the anime industry ever organizing a concerted effort, similar to the RIAA, aimed at eliminating video piracy. There are simply too many difficulties to overcome in an effort to wipe out anime video piracy. The cost of trying to abolishing video piracy may outweigh the financial benefit to be gained. And there is at least one valid reason not to aggressively pursue prohibition of all unlicensed anime distribution.

America is not the only country that produces illegal, unlicensed fansubs. In fact, it's not only fansubs that constitute video piracy. International copyright law prohibits the unauthorized public distribution of any copyrighted video, regardless of whether or not it's translated and regardless of which countries it is and isn't licensed for distribution within. Legally, an American citizen sharing an untranslated copy of an anime episode not licensed for American release is just as guilty of copyright violation as if he or she was sharing a bootleg copy of an official American anime DVD. Copyright law doesn't make distinctions between "licensed" and "not licensed," "raw" and "fansubbed"; video piracy is video piracy, regardless of the details. English language fansubs made by American anime fans are the most common form of anime video piracy, but there are fan translation groups in countries all around the world that produce and share anime fansubs in a variety of languages. The common characteristic of all these fansubs is that they are non-profit, amateur translations freely shared among fans as a way of spreading awareness and appreciation of Japanese animation. These video files, both translated and "raw," are illegal, but they're not distributed spitefully or with the intention of doing harm to the professional anime industry. While non-profit fansubs are most common, they're not the most egregious threat to the anime industry.

Unlike non-profit fansubs, Asian produced bootleg DVDs are created specifically to be direct competition with legitimate, authorized home video releases. Counterfeit anime DVDs produced and sold in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and other southeast Asian countries knowingly undermine the commercial prospects of legitimate anime distributors, which affects anime producers. While anime fansubs are largely isolated to availability within the underground fan community, counterfeit Asian anime DVDs are sold in Asian shopping malls in place of official products, and frequently confuse consumers that shop many online anime specialty stores and even mainstream retailers including Amazon and Ebay. I've even found pirate anime DVDs available in the pre-owned sections of video stores in my own home town here in Florida. Counterfeit anime DVDs are dangerous because they're often marketed to mainstream consumers and novice fans who can't distinguish bootlegs from legitimate products, or don't even know that they should beware of counterfeits. Not only do these bootleg anime DVDs and VCDs literally divert customers' money from rightful recipients, their poor quality contributes to the perception that anime is a cheaply and poorly made product that's not worth supporting.

Unfortunately, persecuting these commercial video pirates is exceedingly difficult. Licensors in Japan and America may have a hard time pressing legal action in Asian countries. Video pirates that get shut down may restart their businesses under new names or new locations. Domestic retailers resist abandoning bootlegs because of the great profits they produce. Major American retail outlets like Ebay and Amazon resist removing pirated merchandise and censoring retailers that offer counterfeit merchandise because doing so reduces profits. (AN Entertainment has encountered stiff resistance from Ebay to policing the sale of bootleg copies of anime officially licensed and distributed by AN Entertainment.) To the best of my knowledge, Japan's anime industry has never made a collective effort to eliminate illegal Asian anime DVD piracy. Representatives of American companies including AD Vision, Central Park Media, and Viz formed J.A.I.L.E.D. (Japanese Animation Industry Law Enforcement Division) in 1995 to combat anime piracy. The group disbanded shortly after its formation. I suspect that it's simply too difficult, manpower intensive, and time consuming for the professional anime industry to focus on eliminating commercial and non-profit anime piracy. Not to mention expensive.

Conducting any legal action is expensive. Attempting to enforce a legal copyright in another country may be especially expensive. Anime distributors need to consider whether the effort and money they would spend on wiping out piracy would actually result in an equal or greater jump in profits. As long as the anime industry is profitable, the possibility of spending a lot to possibly only diminish or temporarily halt video piracy may be too great an investment to justify its result. After all, the anime industry really isn't that big, so limited resources may be more beneficially spent on other efforts.

Finally, regardless of whether or not it's admitted, the anime industry in Japan and America knows that anime distribution among fans is a more effective type of advertising than any that can be paid for. After all, the anime industry is people; individuals who each realize that unlicensed anime distribution is a double-edged sword. Animators need to be reimbursed for their work in order to continue working. Distributors need to be paid for their products to have funds to sponsor, create and release more products. At the same time, artists want viewers to watch and enjoy the artwork. Distributors want consumers to see, talk about, and desire products. Word of mouth and personal experience are powerful motivators and influential advertisements, but word of mouth and personal experience have to be generated by hands-on contact among consumers.

To put it simply, I think that if the professional anime industry hasn't made a significant effort to develop a collective organization dedicated to preventing unlicensed anime distribution by now, it's not going to. Japan's anime fan community has been active for decades, and Japan's commercial industry has never made a collective effort to stamp out any of that community's activities. As far as I can see in America, unlicensed anime distribution seems to have hit a plateau. America's anime industry maintains an uneasy truce with the American fan community right now, tolerating the activity of the anime community, with occasional isolated threats of legal action from singular companies. As long as unlicensed anime distribution maintains its present prominence, which I foresee it doing well into the future, I expect the equilibrium between the anime fan community and professional industry to remain steady and unchanged.

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