The Legal Grey Zone of Scanslations

****For those that don’t know, scanslations are scanned copies of comics (usually manga) which have been translated and photoshopped with the translation by fans. They are unofficial but not necessarily illegal****
Copyright is a pretty hot issue right now. It has been for some years of course. I know that popular opinion is against me on this one but I very opposed to pirated anime and manga. Specially with the general availability of legal titles. Crunchyroll even has a free to watch option so money isn’t the issue in most places.

I had a conversation with Leth (Lethargic Ramblings) on the subject not that long ago and realized I had never properly explained my standpoint. First I work in Intellectual Property law so I am undoubtedly biased on its value but I do believe the impact on the industry is not always fully appreciated.

anime diappointed

this is what my blog’s media library had under “appreciation”…

You see when we watch pirated anime it’s not that some big streaming platform is loosing out on your subscription fee. It’s not even that it may be loosing out on thousands of fees. It’s that it devalues the IP (intellectual property). Most studios do not have means to distribute their anime directly to audience. As such they make their money through distribution deals (licensing) with networks, streaming platforms or manufacturers of physical media such as dvds, blue rays, merchandise… Some bigger studios do have in house merchandising but it’s never going to be their main revenue stream. Besides merchandise and character rights are only profitable once there’s an established audience.

I’m not going to touch on network deals because I’m not familiar enough with Japanese copyright laws but international deals with platforms like Crunchyroll, Amazon, FUNimation and the like are negotiated under US laws which are very similar to Canadian ones. And if the published marketing projections are to be believed, that’s also where the biggest profit and growth potential is. Understandably, these platforms are unlikely to agree to a very high price for a product (i.e. anime) that their audience can already easily access for free. They might still be interested in it to fill out their libraries and offer the convenience of giving their clients all the shows they could want in one place but because piracy makes exclusive licenses more or less impossible to offer, the prices go way down. This puts the studios at a huge negotiating disadvantage.

It has also created a secondary problem, where studios will try to get a bit better pricing by bundling titles together forcing distributors to pay a bit more for the anime they actually want but giving them another dozen in exchange. At this point, since distribution is expensive, distributors may decide to simply sit on IP they were never interested in in the first place, which in theory blocks anyone else from legally distributing it.

It should be said that if no distribution deal at all exists in your jurisdiction it’s not piracy to see the anime for free. But that’s tricky as you don’t know if an unused deal is in place. Some studios will add clauses that force distribution of IP within a set time period but again, as they are in a weakened negotiation position I would guess such clauses don’t get enforced much, if they are even put in, in the first place.

yato sad

I’m sorry, I’ll start being more interesting soon…maybe…

This is an oversimplified outline but generally, it is my view that piracy erodes the value of anime, making it a very popular yet woefully unmarketable product which contributes to poor working conditions for creators and the prevalence of cheaply quickly made shows as more substantial investments aren’t guaranteed to yield a return. I’m sorry this part got so long, I hope it wasn’t too boring!

I’ve been talking in terms of anime because I know it better, however, everything I said generally applies to manga. The major difference being that manga publishers can act as distributors as well and there is a viable revenue stream from adaptation rights. But the main points still apply.

If you’re enjoying a manga please consider buying it. You can get inexpensive digital versions of some series and that will still help prevent the market from getting too destabilized.

But here is where we dip into some very murky waters. Namely scanslations. From my reading of the law, this one gets sticky on just about every level. The actual legality of it is a bit of a nightmare to work out. An occasionally fun puzzle nightmare but still. First you need to actually establish jurisdiction, this is the only way to tell if 1) a legal distributor exists and 2) which laws you need to use.

Digital piracy laws are still being written (the legal system tends to be slow about such things) and certain countries barely have more than general guidelines. So even the rules for finding jurisdiction are uncertain. The ones usually applied here is the location of the servers which host the website on which the scanslations are available to the public, dictates the jurisdiction. It really doesn’t matter if the product is free or not by the way. Certain pirates do charge the audience despite not having any legal distribution claim.
Axis.Powers_.Hetalia.pirates

bad adorable pirates!

If you are in North America the rules are pretty much the same as for anime. You cannot claim authorship of the manga, you need to give proper credit and there have to be no legal means for readers in the jurisdiction to get the manga in the official language of the jurisdiction, otherwise.

The extra tricky part is the notion of transformative art. Scanslations are, as the name implies, translations of scans of the original. Usually this implies teams of people translating, editing and proofreading. Moreover some work goes into removing the original language text and replacing it with the translation.  So it’s not simply distribution, there is some original work being done which could be arguably creative. (Copyright only applies to “artistic creations”). As such you could stretch this to the concept of fair use. And the great majority of the works aren’t for sale, although more and more groups have Patreon pages in order to compensate their teams at least a little. But they aren’t directly profiting from the original work. You can argue that any single manga or doujin is not responsible for a group’s income.

Morally, it’s even greyer. Everything I have said about rendering the market inhospitable to manga artists still applies but only sort of. Scanslations exist pretty much primarily to provide works in a language they are not available in, as such they do serve an audience that would have literally no way of reading these manga otherwise. They often pick independent doujin to translate which would have no access to the international market without their help but they also rarely get permission. The author is getting free exposure, publicity and sometimes surprisingly high quality translation but is loosing full control of their work. There’s really no way to tell if the scanslations aren’t just a completely made up new story that only uses the framework and pictures of the original. This could be very frustrating. It could even harm the original work if the translation is just particularly bad.

anime angry

they translated “throbbing” to “pulsing” – philistines!

And for those that are lucky enough to get official translation and distribution, they will loose part of their audience because they have already read it in scanslation form. Not to mention that official titles that don’t have their own scanslations to compete with still won’t sell as well because some people (a substantial part) will not be interested in paying for this particular manga, when they can literally read thousands for free.

Then again Again, the popularity of certain scanslations did serve as proof of concept allowing some series to get anime adaptations due to unexpected international interest.

It’s a real pickle. I’m not sure where I stand on the question. Fact is I’ve discovered a lot of great doujin thanks to the practice. I make it a point to buy original language copies of my favourites but some are really punishingly expensive when you order from Canada so I can understand that it’s not going to be viable for everyone. And there’s quite a few I simply have not been able to find.

Do you guys have a stance on Scanslations? Do you consider them the same as piracy? Do you think they do enough good for the field to offset any drawbacks? Are you already fast asleep because of those first paragraphs?

Confused Rini

this is a though question!

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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42 Responses

  1. RisefromAshes says:

    I have to say, I was not expecting to hear about your work in the Intellectual Property Rights. Knowing that though, it really makes me appreicate your views on the subject from a more knowledgable background then myself.

    I use to be in the camp of `scanslations are bad, buy the original or pester a company until it gets released in your original language`. I feel like back in the day, or at least a few years ago, more people would pester companies via letters, etc to push for certain titles to get offical translations. I believe Viz Media use to take those requests seriously, but the practice seems to have died out a bit. Companies can`t know what titles to consider if no one tells them.

    I`m putting my feelings on people who do scanslations of doujinshi that is a whole other bucket of words. As for official content, I do push people to buy originals. If you can`t buy the originals start hitting up your library and see if they`d be interesting in adding manga/anime titles to their collection. I`ve already talked about that before on my blog since that`s how I use to mainly watch anime before I had my own laptop. Most fans still under use the local libraries, or even college libraries!

    I see the arguement for connecting `lost` series, especially series that got dropped more then once. One of my favorite mangas of all times, `Crimson Hero` got dropped from official publishers, twice. Ouch. At the time my Japanese wasn`t strong enough to read the original Japanese, so I subbed into scans to finish.

    My position is also a little skewed since I can read/understand the original source material. So while I can read the original, being my second langauge it can take much longer for me to get through it then reading it in my native language.

    I had a lot of thoughts about this, as did a lot of others so thank you for such a thought provoking article!

  2. Putting aside the doujinshi, the only scanlation I read are the series that I will buy the volume in the future, I’m just to impatient and I need to know what happen next, but soon as I see the volume in book store I buy it.

    Since manga can be expensive when you buy a whole bunch together, I buy a few at the time when it’s a series that already have several volume released, like My Hero Academia.

  3. As someone who’s been on both sides of the debate at one time or another*, I completely understand the “I want to spread the love” sentiment but also the “buying the tankobon, or even a service subscription, is annoying” feeling.

    My feelings are thus: scanlations are being devalued now since people can access them on the cheap on the same day as the Japanese release, but without scanlations, there wouldn’t be so many people skilled in translation/graphic design (through typesetting) today. Plus, there’s always that one manga not licensed for whatever reason that you might never have heard about without scanlations, which means those skills are still in demand, no matter how small – of course, your alternative is to be like me and waste years of your life on upskilling in Japanese, which not everyone can do, /hence/ demand. (Scanlations also happened to be useful when an entire manga company went bankrupt and I was 1 volume from completion – I have the same case with Shaman King now, but since I renounced using scans when I got to that point, I’m just letting it languish in my paused list instead.) However, I could go on about how reading scans for things that are legally viable and accessible to you – e.g. reading Shonen Jump via Viz Media/Manga Plus – are just plain laziness as well as hurting the industry.

    There is a scholarly article somewhere about the “6 faces of piracy” by Ramon Lobato, which I did have to look at at one point – it made me feel like I was being singled out for my past sins…but I do believe their discussion of “access” is the one I – and many of us manga readers who use/d scanlations, judging from what I’ve heard and seen – see as justifiable.

    I’ve seen one Twitter user (The Elusive Taco) tweet what would constitute scanlations, except for the fact they ask the creator first, so it then counts as “official”. That’s one way to get official manga I haven’t seen being discussed yet…probably because it’s not a widespread practice yet.

    * – My credentials: former one-person scanlation team who’d only touch things that were available in Japanese legally online and had no official English translation/someone who’s seen official manga go from “pipe dream outside scanlations or library-sourced official tankobon” to “entirely possible to purchase if circumstances align, or just a click/touch away”/manga library volunteer who sees far too much stuff I’ve never heard of having an English release – ever – in the database

    • Irina says:

      Seems we have a lot of people who work(ed) on scanslations in the community. I’m surprised but I’m not sure why. I guess I assume there would be no way anyone would have time for both.

  4. Lina says:

    I’ve written about scanlations a long way back. My stance on this topic is that if there is an official translation then one should buy it and not read scanlations. I mean, there are even scans out of series like AoT, MHA and OP. That’s just stealing and nothing else. There are platforms for those where you only pay a low fee. And if that platform isn’t available then you can wait for the volume to be released. But back to scanlations again.

    I read scanlations of manga that doesn’t have an official translation. One of my favorite mangaka seems to refuse ever to translate her manga so what’s to do (I am looking at Abe Miyuki here. None of her manga are translated to English even though some of them are successful anime. It sucks!) So anyway, scanlations have made me discover many good manga too that I have bought when they have gotten a license and been released (I Hear the Sunspot for example) of re-released if it’s been OOP (I will by Seven Days when it is released in January). I know I might be in a minority in buying manga I have already read if they get an English license but I feel like I should support the industry that way if I can. (okey, I am not the best at keeping check on everything I read but I at least have a clue on what I loved when I read it.)

    Lot’s of rambling. My stance of anime is a little bit different. I watch with legal means on streaming sites. Or have before but now I have no money for such luxury so at the moment we don’t have any streaming sites at all, not even Netflix. We can’t afford it. So anime is not an option. Downloading is too risky (yeah, the police knock on your door if they find out you download too much. That’s this country for you.) and I refuse to watch on third party sites because they earn tons of money on others work and I don’t like that.

  5. Artemis says:

    I consider anything that undercuts the time and money spent on producing any kind of artistic work without the creator’s consent as piracy – anime, manga, games, scanlations, novels, the lot. This may come across as overly dramatic, but it truly is heartbreaking to any creator to see their work being pirated, as in most cases (particularly in regard to smaller artists and publishes), their work is a labour not just of time and money, but also of love. The cost of getting their work out into the world is often immeasurable.

  6. crazyidiot78 says:

    This is a refreshing explination and stance on the topic, and you bring up some things I had not considered before. I will be rethinking my stance on somethings in light of reading your post.

  7. Lumi says:

    I’ve worked with scanlators in the past, and a lot of them are just fans who want to share to the community. Any and all attempts to forcefully monetize manga is usually met with swift justice. I’m all for it so long as the scanlators are aware that it’s a mostly passion-based project, and while some people will donate, they shouldn’t make it a career (unless they can use that experience to become official translators).

    I’m from the Philippines, so just GETTING manga is hard enough, especially complete. 1 volume of Punpun sets me back about $40. I’d be fine with the price if it was at least widely available, which it isn’t. Not even the whole set, just one volume is extremely difficult to find. This is usually why I end up just buying merch of the product instead of buying manga (unless it’s a hard cover or compendium), because those are easier to find but cost about the same as the manga itself.

    I discuss piracy in general with this sadly kind of under-viewed post:

    https://carnivorouslreviews.wordpress.com/2019/07/04/in-defense-of-anime-and-manga-piracy/

  8. Karandi says:

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge on the topic. I’m still trying to figure out a lot of these rules and I will admit they confuse me a lot.
    I’m going to admit, I love scanlations. There are so many stories that I’ve gained access to and been able to experience because of them and there literally would have been no other way to do so without them. I do get it is an interesting grey area, particularly the not getting the permission of the original creator, and who knows where the law will end up once laws finally actually take into account the way people use the internet these days. Hopefully the law will find some kind of balance however by and large new laws coming in seems to be making things harder for literally everyone.

    • Irina says:

      The base purpose of copyright (and patents!) Is to encourage creation (or innovation) and ironically it can end up doing the opposite…

  9. Wonderful, very well put and showed you know your stuff (no pretending about it). I’m certainly on the it’s illegal side but if I tried to play devil’s advocate I would maybe try to center a argument around “time-shifting” legality.

    Betamax and VCR’s where taking broadcasted shows and were allowed under the premise that they where allowing a viewer to watch at their own preferred time “time-shifting” the media and being a transformative service of sorts. Could you make an argument that scanlations and fab dubs have a similar effect of “language shifting” altering the convenience by providing it in a preferred language?

    Probably not…. the Betamax case came with the caveat that the use has to be personal and non-commercial use which makes it not a 1:1 comparison (Unless you just want to make it for your own personal print?).

    The Betamax case happened because policing was difficult, as much as I like the idea of the police going door to door with baseball bats ready to smash any VCR’s there were too much in circulation to stop. I think Scanlations are going to always exist for that reason the internet is too vast. I think viewers should always go for the legal methods of viewings and the creators have every right to send out a cease and desist. Hopefully things can be handled in this civil manner and never get blow too out of proportion.

    I do recommend Chris Kincaid’s “Are Fansubs and Scanlations Piracy” on Japan Powered as a company piece to this post.

  10. Pete Davison says:

    I’m not going to make any moral judgements on what anyone else thinks here because it’s not my place to; I’ll just share my own view on it! It’s pretty simple.

    If something is officially, legally available via some means, I’ll support that in some way — mostly through streaming sites in the case of anime, but if I find something I particularly like (or if it isn’t readily available via streaming sites) I’ll buy a DVD/BD. I personally wouldn’t be able to excuse resorting to piracy in those situations; if I can’t afford it, I don’t have it. I’m not entitled to everything, and sometimes you have to make decisions about where your priorities lie.

    If something is officially available in another country but not mine, I have no qualms about using a VPN to access that service from another “virtual country”. I actually don’t have one set up right now as most of the stuff I want to watch actually is available here in the UK now, but if I found something that was, for whatever reason, not available, I’d VPN it. That way I’d still be paying for the content I’m enjoying, even if I’m not technically “supposed” to be able to access it.

    If something has never had an official translation and I’m still interested in it for whatever reason, I have no qualms about pirating it and using fan translations. There’s an important caveat, though: regardless of whether I already enjoyed the work in its entirety, if it ever becomes officially available, I’ll stump up the cash for it.

    I also don’t generally make a point of seeking out fan-translated stuff when there’s already so much legally available English stuff out there; the only substantial one has been Fate/stay night, which was an important cultural phenomenon I wanted to cover. You better believe I’d buy an official release of that if it ever saw the light of day, however!

  11. “It’s that it devalues the IP (intellectual property). ”

    I’ve always been under the impression that the main threat was loss of revenue because of a reduced number of legal streamers. This perspective changes everything.

    I’m now more committed than ever to legal access to IP!

    “Do you guys have a stance on Scanslations?”

    The conditions you laid out mean there’s a place for them, though it’s hard to find out if there’s a pending deal in the works. I’d like to see some kind of clearing house, maybe even extending to fansubs, where studios can define areas where they don’t have deals and maybe even crowdsource fansubs or Scanslations. The studios’ investments would be low; the dedicated translators would get some recognition and bragging rights; and the fans would get access to material not otherwise available.

    A studio might even be able to quantify demand in a specific region.

    Thanks for including a shot of Felli Loss. Always a welcome sight!

    • Lynn says:

      I like the crowd sourcing idea for translations. It would be a great way to ensure the validity of the availability and enable publishers to test the water and see just how popular something might be.

    • Irina says:

      That’s actually a brilliant idea. Crowdsourced digital translation group that would then be able to pay their employees and tbe creator for limited rights…You know…maybe I should see how that would work…

      • “That’s actually a brilliant idea.”

        Thanks! But ideas are pretty cheap. What’s hard is:

        “You know…maybe I should see how that would work…”

        If you can figure out the logistics, I think you would have the potential for a legitimate international business! That would be cool.

  12. A Library Archivist says:

    Tricky. Out of print and bankrupt publication may still get read but publishers might not bother. Problem in anime too. Pirates connect abandoned products with readers and viewers. Publishers care more about profit. That gap is why this exists.

  13. Lynn says:

    I hate the argument that ‘I shouldn’t have to buy all the different platforms to watch what I want’. If it’s available, even at a cost, you have no right to take it. Back in the day of VHS when I would go to buy a new anime, I had to pick the one(s) that I could afford at the time. Could you imagine going up to the counter and saying ‘I can afford these but I’m just going to take them all because you can’t withhold a story from me!’ Of course not. That would be ridiculous.

    I have read scanlations of a manga that hasn’t been translated, I looked far and wide and could only find the Japanese and French versions, but if it does get translated, I like to think I’d buy it, but it’s hard to say.

    As someone that has created stories and sold them (not loads I should add), I can say that the content creators don’t make very much money at all so unless your actively trying to help them promote or increase their profile, stealing is stealing and you’re only going to hurt the creators that you love.

    • Irina says:

      I know thr flip side is that scanslators are providing a service in exchange….Your creator perspective is great and I 100% agree that when it is available, even if expensive, then it’s stealing.

  14. ospreyshire says:

    I didn’t know you have experience in intellectual property. You brought up points and aspects I didn’t even think about. When I do enjoy someone’s work, I spend my money to support the creators. The whole aspect of unlicensed anime has been bizarre. Sometimes licenses can drop if it’s been released before (and I have bought the official DVDs before and after the fact), but it gets so complicated when something has never gotten distribution here in America and aren’t featured on Crucnhyroll, Amazon, or whatever.

  15. marthaurion says:

    i feel like when piracy is concerned, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking it’s just for money. these arguments tend to devolve, because i think both sides tend to devolve into the extremes of the argument. those that are for piracy tend to argue from the unrealistic perspective of the poor, college kid in a country with no access to anime or manga, and those against piracy tend to argue from a perspective of maximum availability (such as the US). in reality, things tend to fall somewhere in the middle.

    honestly, the section about how copyright affects IP value is interesting, and i liked reading it. but i don’t tend to take a hard stance either way. and i think that availability and the quality of the experience are the more pressing concerns, rather than the money. 3-gatsu no lion is the example i would point to for availability. it’s a great series with an extensive anime adaptation, but the manga has never been licensed in the west. i would love to support the manga’s release, because i think the series is worth it, but the option isnt there (short of importing japanese volumes to literally throw money at it).

    • Irina says:

      Despite working in the field (patents not copyright mind you) i also don’t take a hard stance. But I do think there are more variables and implications than the ones that usually het discussed (and mu h more than what I’ve touched on in this post). I’m really excited and surprised to see there is genuine interest in the subject

      • marthaurion says:

        im honestly not lol. piracy’s definitely one of those hot topics, especially given the extreme positions. for the record, ive worked on scanlation and fansub groups in the past, so i suppose i come from that background.

  16. Pinkie says:

    Living in the Netherlands myself a lot of content is blocked from distribution here. I do not know the exact details but it boils down to the guy who owns the rights for distribution here oftenly blocking series and shows to inflate prices he can ask for series that he can earn more off due to there being figurines and such stuff. To my understanding they try to to control what series we can watch so they can be smarter about what they can sell as side products and more of that stuff. At least that is the story I am told. Same goes with manga for them, So there is a distributor.. but he choose to activelly not distrbute it but he has the rights so no one else can.

    As such i do not think everything is piracy. To me I’d say intent is really important. I do not mind if someone uses a Scanslation too see if they enjoy a series as long as they are willing to support the original material when they are able to. When someone uses it and only intends it so that they can avoid paying for it I do feel thats wrong.
    When something becomes fully unobtainable by legal means but It still exists I do think obtaining it ‘less legally’; is the only way to go.

    Example: Recently the Capcom Ducktales remake game has been removed from all digitial market places due to conflicting rights. I do not think it should mean the game should go to purgatory and never make someone happy again. If you failed to download it in time.. because either you did not have a job or were not of the right age to use a digitial market place doesnt mean it HAS to be denied from you. A game , a anime and a manga have a primary purpose to entertain people that hasnt changed. Like if a baker makes a bread that lies there for too long. Just because he can’t make money of it anymore doesnt mean it can’t feed someone. I am sure plenty of bakers would rather see the stale bread be donated to those in need than that he knows it’s rotting in a bin. (I am even for someone stealing the bread from the bin as well should the baker be forced to toss it rather than give it away)
    Same for a game, or a manga or anime or whatever comes from an IP.

    In truth everyone smuggles a bit. The manga artist might have declared an extra hour, the company on it’s turn maybe doesnt pay the first fifteen minutes of overtime even if they are systematical. It happens everywhere and taking a free sample on occasion isnt that much worse… as long as it’s limited and not meant to intentionally steal. I am all for people for obtaining that game or manga that they wanted to play if they really want to see or play it. I am against people doing it to just kill boredom or because they can. Do what you need to do as no man or woman never colours outside the lines but if you take a bread from the bakers bin don’t forget to at least give him a hug or tip him when you are again able to do so.

  17. In my country, access to manga is little to none. I know that official digital platforms exist but I prefer physical copies. What’s trickier is some titles are region-locked. To make things harder the bookstore chain I go to doesn’t offer the manga I want to buy. What’s available are only what’s popular in the area.

    Plus I know most people would buy the actual manga for a collection. Majority of them would rather look up in scanlations because it’s so easy to find there over the official means. In the case of anime, region-locked shows also sucks. And it’s also why the Internet exists.

    I remember one manga got popular from a scanlation before an official release came. The name is Gokushufudou or The Way of the Househusband in English. When it got licensed most people assumed that without the scanlation, it wouldn’t exist in the world today. I even read it too on the scanlation and I would love to support the artist. If I’m being too selfish here, but if the medium of distribution doesn’t actually harm the creators then what’s the point of closing a way to finding a potentially good story?

    • Irina says:

      The problem is in measuring the harm to the creator. We don’t know. Maybe the author would never have gotten an international deal or maybe it would have taken a few extra years but they could have sold the rights at twice the price. Or maybe that author only benefitted but the market becomes less hospitable for other authors or perhaps the rise in popularity boosts their negotiating power. I’m mot saying you’re wrong but there are a large number of variables, a lot of which we don’t have proper data on, to consider before assessing dammages. And smaller publishers have in fact gone bankrupt because of it so we know there is at least a possibility of harm…

  18. Fair use is tricky. I’d advise a possible translator to contact the copyright holder for permission, but I imagine permissions would be routinely denied regardless of the holders actual intentions for the work.

    • Irina says:

      You’d be surprised. A lot of independent creators are eager to share. However if those rights have already been transfered to a publisher…. Look at pinterest, it’s a copyright infringement wonderland and most artists are thrilled by the exposure

  1. September 29, 2019

    […] for some legal news. Sort of, at least in this manga-related feature with Irina talking about “The Legal Grey Zone of Scanslations”. It’s something many of us have participated in, dare I say most of us, but we as a community […]

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