Fansubs and scanlations have been around since the late ’70s. Back then, Americans would record shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica and exchange them with Japanese fans for anime. Over time, the VHS recordings would be translated and further shared with fans.
Fansubbing and scanlations are the reasons why anime and manga became widely popular in the United States. Japanese companies used the fangroup work to test the market for an official release. Generally speaking, as soon as an official release was made, fangroups shut down their translations and distributions. That is why once-illegal sites like Mangafox and Crunchyroll take down their content once there is an official release. Scanlations and Fansubs are not-for-profit and freely released.
Basically, once money enters the equation (through cutting into sales or fans selling their translations) copyrights are strongly enforced.
Fansubs and scanlations are grey areas. Technically, they are illegal because they distribute copyrighted content without permission. However, companies have mostly turned a blind eye to the works because of their usefulness for testing the market.Fan-made comics (called dojinshi) based on official manga are sponsored by manga publishers in Japan despite being copyright violations.
Recently, fan-works have started to compete with official releases as companies simultaneously release English dubs and translations concurrently with the Japanese release.
This is a victory for fans because their work has forced companies to see the demand for anime and manga in other countries. It is also a defeat; now fangroups are becoming unneeded.
So are fansubbing and scanlation piracy? Legally, yes. However, it mainly depends on how much manga publishers decide to pursue it. As long as fan-work doesn’t hurt sales or detract from profitability, it is doubtful publishers will do anything against it. It still acts as free marketing for publishers; it primes the waters for future fans and official releases. Many sites like Crunchyroll now work with content publishers while still maintaining a library of fansubbed content.
Fan driven distribution allows companies to see how well different methods work without investing in them. Simulcasts are one outcome in addition to the creation of anime networks like Neon Alley.
Copyright enforcement is increasing. FUNimation back in 2008 took down 20,000 clips of content from steaming sites and BitTorrent networks. The use of Cease and Desist letters has also increased in recent years.
In any case, manga and anime publishers know “pirates” are vital in promoting the transnational anime and manga markets. The trick is finding a balance; it is up to the fans to keep to their ethics and stop distribution of content when it is officially released. It is also up to the fans to not consume fansubs and scanlations when there are official publications. Companies produce manga and anime as long as they remain profitable. It is up to us, the fans, to keep the market healthy by purchasing content as much as possible. Mangaka have to eat! The people who work Tokyopop and FUNimation have to eat!
We can continue to push for more content releases by sending requests to the companies and, yes, still subbing and scanlating ethically. We need to keep in mind that we are partners with the people who create our favorite anime and manga. If we don’t do our part, they cannot continue to make the stories we enjoy.
Bottom line: It is wrong to read scanlations and watch fan subs without purchasing the content through legitimate channels when they are available.
Denison, R. (2011). Anime fandom and the liminal spaces between fan creativity and piracy. International Journal Of Cultural Studies, 14(5), 449-466. doi:10.1177/1367877910394565
Jenkins, H. (2006). When Piracy Becomes Promotion. Reason, 38(7), 78-79.