What a boring title. And this is going to be a bit of a boring post. I’m mostly going to talk about copyright and theoretical licensing rights so you know, feel free to skip this one if you’re already dozing off.

But for all you intellectual property nerds out there, let me tell you about this idea I had for provisional manga licensing and such! YAY.

I said: YAY!

As I write this MangaDex has been down for some time. I like MangaDex. They make an actual effort to remove any manga that has official translations either available or in the works. They had no advertising so they aren’t making money on the backs of the mangakas without giving them any and they kept their site virus-free. Don’t get me wrong, the site was still very dubiously legal but as far as they go, I think they did a lot of things right. And I do hope they come back some day. But I suggest some changes.

The main issue with scanslations or fan-translation and so forth is that they violate the author’s copyright. Now, sometimes the mangaka has, in fact, retained their copyright and fan translations directly hurt the artist, other times that copyright belongs to a publisher either through contract or purchase. In any case, when copyrights are so generally infringed on that you can easily find the product for free, sometimes without credit or publishing notes, the copyrights, in general, lose value. This means that one of the main assets of the manga industry is worth less by default because of the existence of sites la Mangadex. To me, that is a bad thing.

And here is the flip side. I’m watching Shadows House this season and I’m really into it. I like it a lot. There are a few episodes left but the way the story is unravelling, I think we won’t get all the answers. Enough for closure but there’s a larger story for sure. So I already decided that I would buy the manga to continue this tale. But you see, there are no available English versions of Shadows House. Not even digital ones. At least not officially. MangaDex had it… So I sighed and saw what similar titles AniList recommended. There was Kuro, about a little girl with a black kitten that might be a demon. It looked awesome and I really liked Kuro’s design. Nope, no English version. Also, Coffee Moon seems to promise all the mystery and fantasy but with some Yuri to boot. Sweet… And of course no English version.

I could be patient and wait for it to get licensed. That’s what they did in the olden days after all! And it might never get licensed. Too bad so sad… There are so many English mangas out there, I could just choose another one. I finished volume 4 of The Witch and the Beast yesterday. Those are awesome, I could read those… But I have another suggestion and I think we all win.

Why don’t we create a licensing structure for fan translations? As such, the copyright retains its value, no one is screwing over Mangakas and no artist finds out about a translation they don’t approve of years after the fact. And we still get manga!

The first and most obvious obstacle is – licenses cost money. I keep talking about value and such. And scanslation groups are often volunteers and students who won’t be able to afford those licenses. Not to mention all the hassles and administration around creating and signing the licenses with Japanese publishers that have strict business cultures to adhere to. I hear you.

First I call them provisional licenses because I think they should expire. Now a lot of licenses expire, there’s nothing special here. So these licenses would give the licensees the right to translate and distribute manga digitally in a specific language for let’s say, one or two years about, or until an official license is granted, whichever comes first. And there could be a clause that the license can be renewed as long as no other license for the same language is in place. It would be understood that these licenses grant no rights whatsoever over physical media, merchandise, spinoff projects or anything like that. On the other hand, They would be much cheaper than a “real” license as they can be overridden.

In my head, the people purchasing those licenses would not be the scanslation groups. It would either be distributors such a Viz or Yen press. They can recoup the money easily by creating subscription programs like Viz already has with Shonen Jump and for a few bucks a year, readers would have access to the entire fantranslated libraries. This means advertisement and some profits for the publisher, it also gives them the benefit of essentially test running manga to better figure out what licences they want to buy and how much they are willing to spend for them. They get a manga that becomes super popular in fantraslation form, get the full rights and now have exclusivity over new chapters coming out with an already built-in fanbase who is used to getting these mangas from them! It’s a good deal!

But it could also be third-party sites like Mangadex that would now be official and legal and as such could start selling some premium advertising space of their site for nice clean reputable advertisers and make a pretty penny without the reader ever having to pay anything directly.

As for the translators, I don’t see a need to change anything much. I figure the sites that want to distribute legal fantranslations can advertise the titles they need to get translated. The groups still do the translations as they do now, and can have Patreons or whatever on the side, same as now but they have the benefit of getting high-quality raws directly from the publisher which means they no longer need to clean or redraw any of the panels (that’s a LOT of time saved), they become immune to cease and desist letters and they get some actual legitimacy with the industry. It’s now something you can put on a CV as past job experience and even get references from.

And the manga industry as a whole gets to profit from a lot more publicity and distribution. It eventually allows independent mangaka another avenue to have their works translated if they directly want to work with scanslation groups and retain more control over the project and more visibility with their fans.

It’s an interesting idea that would have a lot of pluses for everyone. And I could find Shadows House!

Of course, there are some important drawbacks. Intellectual Property is an enforceable right. If you don’t enforce your copyright, the government isn’t just going to do it for you like in the case of other criminal offences. Even if everyone knows. So the license holders will have to put in extra effort to stop some of those less scrupulous sites from still ripping off manga. Creating those licenses will still require a couple of lawyers and they are famously inexpensive. So regardless of how pretty the theory may seem, the practice will be though.

Still, I thought it was a neat idea and I got excited about it so I wanted to share!

18 thoughts

  1. The issue of fan translations is such a complex problem. On the one hand it is illegal, and violates creators/official publishers copyright. But on the other hand official English translations are both slow (often lagging a few years behind Japan publication wise) and also extremely expensive.

    However we are starting to see the emergence of subscription services that provide simultaneous English/Japanese chapters of selected manga, but this is only under specific publishers (Shueisha’s Manga+ & Shonen Jump are the only ones I’m aware of so far). I do hope though that services like this this could provide a cheaper and faster solution to English translations in the future, especially as reading manga online via smart devices is becoming more popular in Japan at the moment.

    1. I do think official; digital translations like Shonen Jump have a lot of potential as well. Unfortunately, the market is so flooded with free illegal transcriptions that it’s difficult to find an audience for the official ones. I think that once the official libraries and archives become more deiverse and better stocked than the fantranslated ones, it will be a step in that direction.

      1. Exactly. There’s just not enough official digital translations, illegal ones are unfortunately much more accessible to most people. It is a tricky issue that needs to be solved.

  2. I swore I commented on this post earlier, but I guess not lol. Honestly, the circumstances you’re describing sound ideal to me. It would take quit a bit of effort and investment, but like you said I could see this being a game changer and huge money maker.

    1. There are similar contract structures that exist for video games and I do think it’s feasable but I’m not sure there’s enough interest since the overabundance of free not too legal manga makes it obvious that it would be difficult to enforce.

      1. Ah, I know next to nothing for video games but that sounds right. It is tricky with the interest factor. A lot of people are going more legit these days (or once they get money) but free not too legal always seems to find a way…

  3. Kinds of reminds me of what Manga Library Z (J-Comi) wanted to do. But they focus on older titles.

    Plus as soon as money enters the manga scanlation conversation a lot of fans nope out and head to aggregates to wait for rips of the official version. There are more low-cast and even free options available than ever before, but it’s always disappointing to keep waiting, often in vain, for a publisher to pick up a good series.

    1. But if they remain free to readers, I’m not sure it will have much of an impact on that end. I don’t think these readers are morally opposed to advertisement or something. After all a lot of those aggregates are full of adds it’s just the money goes to the pirates instead of the authors or translators.

  4. This actually sounds like a workable idea where no one gets screwed out of monies they ought to be getting. My cynical side says, yeah, someone will figure out how to use it to fuck the creators and fans over – but no, really, I think it sounds good. Now…who would pay for the lawyers and so on to get it created and put into use… maybe a crowd source?

    1. Well iltimately, if it grants exckusivety to a distributor, it would be worth a fortune in potential advertisement revenue. It might be an initial investment that’s worth it to the publishers. It’s not like Viz doesn’t have some loose change lying around

  5. I wonder what the effect of such a license on professional translators would be? Official outlets could have stuff available without paying translators upfront to test the waters. And once you publish an official version? The legal greyzone serves a function, too, I think, though I’m not sure what exactly. It’s a tad messy, as life tends to be.

    1. That is a great question and I’m not sure. It might be a parralel to how the prolific and readily available amount of fanfiction affects authors or doujins affect mangakas. Both have become legitimate enough that fanfictions get big budjet adaptions and doujins are sold openly at cons and online. I figure it’s a double edged sword. On the one hand it draws in fans so it makes the overall market bigger but it also officializes the possibility of getting the product for free. Then again, bad translations make us appreciate good translators and we are most likely to pay for a product we already love (as in a series we’ve started unofficially that becomes liscenced). Then again again we are less likely to give new manga a try unless they’re free and it’s probabl;y going to greatly encourage new translators to have to donate at least some of their time in order to breask into the business by ranking up fan translation credits. Then again again again… like I said, I’m not sure.

  6. That does sound like an interesting idea. I’m just wondering about the rights deal myself considering that the manga they would translate would still have an intellectual property deal and rightsfrom Japan. It sounds a great deal bit complicated

    1. There are two forms of exclusivity here. The copyright, which is an inherent right of the author and protects against reprotduction of a work of art. Copyright is international and inherent. There doesn’t need to be any special legal deals inplace. Now the entire cruix of this question is – does translating a work consist in what would legally be considered transformative. This is a grey zone. But commentary and review are both considered transformative even if they leave mosr of the work unchanged so there deffinetly room for a legal argument there. And if we make a marketplace argument, the Japanese manga isn’t losing a considerable amount of readers because a fan translated croatian version exists. The second concept here, is distribution. There are likely deals in place with the author to sell and distribute their works, and those aren’t always public so it’s not clear if a scanslation is infringing or not. Distribution deals are usually limited to specific jurisdictions but just because a manga isn’t currently being translated or sold, doesn’t mean there isn’t a deal in place for it that may not be in use yet. More often than not, it’s the distributors that go after fan creations as they are more likely to lose income than the authors at that point but it’s not like authors are particularly thrilled to have people take their work and traslated without them even knowing about it either.

      1. Yeah, I just keep thinking about book authors who have their books pirated all the time leading to some series failures. It does feel like there is some interesting room there though. Especially since this is the international circuit.

  7. Interesting idea! Realistically I think you identified all the challenges for something like this ever being implemented but it never hurts to theory craft 🙂

    Did you mean to say lawyers are famously inexpensive or expensive?

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