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.
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.
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.
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.
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?