Anime Vice News

Protip: Fansubbing Is Illegal in Japan, Too

True truth is true, my friends.

J-J-J-Jail!
J-J-J-Jail!
It's always amazing to me how often I come upon people who think that fansubbing is legal, or legal as long as the series is unlicensed, or even a “gray area,” considering that it's a blatant violation of international copyright laws.


Mostly we think of this as it relates to English-speaking fansubbers working on Japanese anime, but here's a tale of the reverse: a guy in Japan who fansubbed an American movie and released it via BitTorrent. 33-year-old Kazushi Hirata fansubbed the Angelina Jolie flick Wanted, released it prior to its Japanese theatrical release, and was arrested in September.


He plead guilty in November and was sentenced yesterday: he'll spend two years in prison and be suspended for three years after that (I'm guessing that's like parole?). And it could have been worse: he could have gotten as many as 10 years in prison with a $95,000 fine.


Now, American movies reach a much wider audience in Japan than anime reaches in the US-- which means the US (and Japanese) anime industry depends even more on each and every individual sale than American movie companies. Just food for thought.

giaon Dec. 17, 2008 at 6:14 p.m.
By the way, can I just offer this: what a crappy movie to go to prison for!
Devillyon Dec. 17, 2008 at 6:17 p.m.
LoL just as i was downloading a fansubbed Paprika for on my Nintendo DS XD

j/k j/k its not fansubbed :)
Count_Zeroon Dec. 17, 2008 at 7:35 p.m.
This does lead to an interesting question - fansubbing is illegal. Circumventing DVD region codes on stand alone players (like the one you've probably got under/next to/above/built in to your TV right now) is also illegal (due to the DMCA). I would like to think that most US anime fans would agree that downloading fansubs of US licensed shows is bad period - the creators of the series don't get any money, and the US licensor gets no money.

However, what about shows that are not only unlicensed, but are likely to never be licensed period - as an example, Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Not including the films and the Gaiden series, it's over 100 episodes long, and is certainly an older series, which (if Answerman is correct) is likely to never, ever be licensed, both due to the age and the length of the series. Now, the DVDs are available in Japan, but do not necessarily have English subtitles, and they are region coded for Japan. Now, if a Blu-Ray release comes out, then we may be in business - Japan and the US share a Blu-Ray region code. However, as far as DVDs are concerned, one would either need to...
  1. Buy a Japanese region-coded DVD player.
  2. Buy an extra DVD-Rom drive for your PC, change the region to the Japanese region code (you get 3-5 region changes in XP - don't know about Vista), and use that.
  3. Find a region-free DVD player (they do make some and sell them in the US, I think - if they're not available in the US they may be available in Canada - you'd just have to import them).

Of course, these all depend on the DVDs coming with English subtitles and (maybe) English Menus. I didn't pick Legend of the Galactic Heroes at random. The show has a very long cast of characters - long enough that the character list article on Wikipedia refrains from their usual practice of giving a brief description of the character, presumably for the sake of brevity. If the books were licensed for US release and translated, very likely the translator (or the editor) would have a Dramatis Personae included at the front of each volume, to remind the reader who each character is (and what side they're on) much like Michael Stackpole and Aaron Alliston's (sp?) X-Wing series of novels (not to mention much weighter fare as War and Peace and Les Miserables). Further, the adaptation itself took account for this, giving each major character, upon their first appearance in each episode (even if they appeared in previous episodes) a brief caption describing who they were and what side they were on or what their post was (which was of particular use because the show is an OVA, instead of a TV series, so there could be a not insignificent gap between releases of volumes.) Thus, if there were not any English Subtitles available, the show could very quickly become incomprehible to viewers.

Some of the old guard of anime fans would probably say that that's not a problem, back in their day, when they did not have fansubs, they'd just watch the imported raw tapes, and make up the story for themselves (paragraph 4).*  To which I say, I don't care. I prefer to understand what's going on in a story, particularly in a story that is as epic in scope as LotGH - and as it is, not all stories are such that, at a glance, you can tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Anyway, because of the roadblock of the language barrier and region coding, there is no legal way to get R1 English Language DVDs of LotGH in the US or Canada - thus no way for me to get my money out of my pocket (or bank account) to the producers, writers, animators and voice actors of the series, and get a shiny DVD that I can pop in my DVD player, and watch (and understand the plot) in return. Furthermore, I just don't have the time to learn Japanese right now, I have a full time job, and I have to finish up my degree - maybe once I've finished up my degree I might be able to slip in Japanese classes, but it would take me a lot of time (and money - for both the classes and textbooks for the classes) to get myself to a level of fluency that would allow me to watch the show, and understand all the complexities of the plot  - and again, that's ignoring the problems of region coding.

Now that I've gotten all of that out of the way, this leads to my questions - as fansubbing is illegal in the US and in Japan, what do we do about older series, particularly those that are not likely to recieve an official license? Considering that such shows have a limited appeal, and thus will make more money anyway (and considering that dubs add a great deal of cost to the DVDs) should licensors like ADV and Funimation take AnimEigo's approach, and do subtitle-only DVD relases for older series (such as LotGH) with translator's notes - either in subtitles or in an attached booklet, dub-fans be damned? Or, should those series be released online only, such as through Crunchyroll, with the option available to pay to see (and download) a higher-definition version of the show (which may be DRM-free, and possibly in a format that is compatible with most DVD-burning software). Alternatively, as Blu-Ray gets a higher install base, should Japanese companies that put out anime (the publishers, not the studios themselves - or whoever would be releasing them in Japan normally) include English subtitles and menus and release the films to the US directly? Or, should the status quo (or some variation thereof) remain the same- that Anime licensors and the Japanese production companies turning a (moderately) blind eye to English language fansubs, provided that when a show is licensed (or a licensor or producer asks the fansubber/tracker/whatever to take it down), the fansubs for that series go down? Or, do people have another option they'd like to suggest (aside from, "then don't watch the show then" or "Learn Japanese" - the first is avoiding the question, and the second I've already addressed).



*Note: I'm not saying that Wil is the kind of grognard who would say that sort of thing - the link is to show that I'm not necessarily spouting a strawman - I kind of am - that argument has not been made yet, but I'm addressing a valid point.

Black_Roseon Dec. 17, 2008 at 7:54 p.m.
gia said:
"By the way, can I just offer this: what a crappy movie to go to prison for!"
Took the words off my mouth
omoon Dec. 17, 2008 at 8:03 p.m.
A lot of poor quality shows get fansubbed too... At least Japan is consistent.

However there is a compelling fair use argument, so it can be correctly described as "legally grey." Japanese copyright law is, after all, not the same as America's (or any other country).
giaon Dec. 17, 2008 at 8:16 p.m.
Count_Zero: You should repost that essay as a blog post! That said, you can get region-free DVD players in the US pretty easily.

As for the rest...I'll quote Dark Horse's Carl Horn here, as I so often have: it's not the downloading, it's the downloading and not buying.

So if a fan wants to watch a fansub of a series that is more or less unlicens-able for one reason or another, and they want to do so ethically, I'd say download the episodes but also import the DVDs. The problem is that very few fans will do this; DVDs are extremely expensive in Japan and tend to come with few episodes. Kaiba, for example, is a rare case of 4 episodes (two discs) per release. But each release is hideously expensive-- the first disc is about $65 with an Amazon discount ($81 MSRP), and the subsequent two releases are about $100 each on Amazon / $117 MSRP. So that's $281 to $315 for a single 12-episode series.

...You have to be pretty devoted to be willing to do that.
CalAggieon Dec. 17, 2008 at 8:28 p.m.
Reminds me of a 2006 NY Times story about Chinese fangroups subtitling American TV shows like "Lost" and "CSI" because the offerings from CCTV were lacking. It was not exactly the same as this case since the potential for lost revenue was not as high as a major motion picture but still similar enough to link to.
Count_Zeroon Dec. 17, 2008 at 8:41 p.m.
Gia: I'm not disagreeing about the expense - I was going over the DVD releases for Bureau42.com (a site I write for), for anime releases, and to import, say, DVDs of Blade of the Immortal, it runs about what you're quoting there. Are there people stateside who would pay for those releases - oh hell yes. Blade of the Immortal is probably one of Dark Horse's most popular manga releases (and, between it, Oh! My Goddess, Akira, and Dirty Pair) it put them on the map, not just among manga fans, but comic readers as well (well, that and the Star Wars, Aliens, and Predator licenses).

Actually, what really caused me to think about this is the Captain Harlock series - I have every harlock series that was relased on DVD stateside (which numbers about 3, not including peripheral series and spinoffs like Cosmo Warrior or *shudder* Gun Frontier) In theory, there's a prospective market for, say, Harlock SSX, which is a direct sequel to Arcadia of My Youth (and the only instance of continuity in the franchise). It'd even fit in with AnimEigo's catalog. Is it going to happen? Highly unlikely (in fact, the Hey Answerman column I linked to was referencing Harlock series).

(Oh, and why I didn't do it as a blog - by the time I'd finished I'd figured it would probably work better as a blog - but I wasn't sure if there was some way to connect it to this article without posting a comment here as a link, which seemed kind of pathetic - even if it was an internal link, instead of a link to my external blog, or even to Bureau42.com.)
Count_Zeroon Dec. 17, 2008 at 11:22 p.m.
One other thing I didn't mention, is anime series that would be a just plain expensive mess to license, like, say Macross 7 (A=Money due to Studio Nue or Big West for the rights for the original Macross series, B=Any money due to Harmony Gold due to that whole rights cluster-frack, C=Royalties for the Fire Bomber songs used in the series, and then if you dub the series you get D=Payment for the voice actors for the initial dub sessions and E=Royalty payments for the voice actors.) So, that series would be impossible to license for US release, so they can't get our money for the DVDs.

(Now, they can get our money for the Fire Bomber albums, if you import them, which gives you one way to support the show, if you like the music - and really, if you don't like the music, why are you watching the show?)
Damnation_Leeon Dec. 18, 2008 at 11 a.m.
People. Don't be stupid!
GMan staff on Dec. 18, 2008 at 8:36 p.m.
gia said:
"By the way, can I just offer this: what a crappy movie to go to prison for!"
That's just crazy talk.  It may not have been movie of the year but I wouldn't call it crappy.  Maybe you try reading the original material.  They're both similar in the beginning then the movie took a big turn.  The comic was definitely better.
Lunarmothon Dec. 18, 2008 at 8:37 p.m.
Well we all know this topic has been on the top of the list for many anime fans. Strangely enough with a kind of flip flop groups of people picking a fighting sides. Do I think stealing is wrong, well ya.  Have I took something because I was being treated as a slave and the MFers were trowing it away (maybe more then once).
Now I do buy as much Anime and Manga as I can. But there is only so much I can spend. My only other way of viewing anime then is to watch the tv (which IS going to cost me and is limited) or go through the troubel of what Count_Zero said.
We are a devoted few that want so much. We want anime that the majorty of the Japanies people have playing on the unknown chanle in the unforgive houres of the night. And even if we are big enough groupe to be a pain to some, the US anime markent is simply just not big enought. So we (the anime markent) must grow for more companies be instreted to do the work to get paid. But in the meen time one of the ways to get people into anime is to keep them up to date with new and great show (and we all know one of the best ways to do that).
This is only part of what I think and would like to talk about it more if you have made anthoner blog or forum Gia or Count_Zero I be glad to talk about it more, but for now I won't take anymore NEWS comment space.
giaon Dec. 18, 2008 at 8:42 p.m.
GMan said:
"gia said:
"By the way, can I just offer this: what a crappy movie to go to prison for!"
That's just crazy talk.  It may not have been movie of the year but I wouldn't call it crappy.  Maybe you try reading the original material.  They're both similar in the beginning then the movie took a big turn.  The comic was definitely better."
I was only talking about the movie, not the comic, which I haven't read. As a movie, it was pretty overwhelmingly "meh," IMO.
GodLen staff on Dec. 18, 2008 at 9:49 p.m.
Fansubbing doesn't kill people, I kill people!
Xymoxon Dec. 19, 2008 at 12:12 a.m.
How and why would subtitles be "illegal"? First of all, aren't you retelling of facts? You're retelling what the characters are saying. If not then all the quotes on the internets are illegal, because that's what it is. A sub is just one, massive, quote. And wouldn't the person who subtitled it be protected by copyright himself, since it's his work after all, and he didn't even get paid for it. That's like saying fanlitterature is illegal. Maybe I'm wrong, so yell at me if I am. In my eyes however, what happened here was that he uploaded the movie, and that was the only big no-no here. 
AHoodedFigureon Dec. 19, 2008 at 12:16 a.m.
Suspended could be like suspended sentence, meaning if you violate (the law?) you go straight back to jail without the normal procedures or something.

Part of sales is advertising and in my wild past I probably learned more about Anime through these surreptitious means than I ever would have through normal, commercial means, especially living where I lived.

It may be scary for people to realize, but illegal doesn't always mean wrong, even if you wind up going to jail for it.  You can break the law but be doing something that will later be acceptable and legal.  This is where test cases come from.

Come to think of it, that sentence seems a bit harsh.
giaon Dec. 19, 2008 at 2:43 p.m.
Xymox: I'm not going to yell : But while subtitles themselves aren't illegal, distributing fan-subtitled movies, anime, etc. is illegal. So is distributing even just a translation without a video file-- those words and that story are copyrighted. It's the same as if you tried to give away your own translation of a Harry Potter novel as an alternative to an official one...you're taking away from those sales (or, if it hasn't already been released, those future sales).

Fan-written literature based on other works is also illegal in most cases, although not for copyright: it's trademark violation. The characters, the worlds, they're protected under trademark law. That said, the vast majority of fan-art and fan-fiction (and even in some cases fan-subs) are tolerated because they generally assist the copyright/trademark holders in promoting the materials for free, and it's hard to want to go through the PR nightmare of suing your fans. In Japan they also tolerate doujinshi because doujinshi-creators are one of the pools of talents that manga publishers draw from-- but as soon as they start crossing the line into creating violating materials that can be consumed as an alternative to official materials (like a particular Doraemon doujinshi, just in recent memory) you'll find copyright/trademark holders can and often will jump on it.

Now, I want to note that my personal stance is not necessarily in complete and utter opposition to fansubs, and certainly not against fanart or fanfics or anything...but I think it's very important that the creators of these materials be aware that what they are doing is a technical violation of the creators' rights, even if they're doing it with the best of intentions, and even if the creator doesn't mind.
Zeouterlimitson Dec. 20, 2008 at 5:14 a.m.
2 Years. Youch...
Luffyon Dec. 22, 2008 at 12:25 a.m.

I think the general thing is that cartoons like anime aren't seen in the same calibur as high-budget movies, especially if it's a TV show.  If someone pirates the Dark Knight, they'd be shitting themselves every time they get a phone call.  If someone pirates an anime though, they assume the original creators have no authority over them, especially when it's unlicensed.  Besides, the insane price of an anime series for even the most obscure show is more than you would charge for the same number of episodes of a multi-million dollar per episode show.  The stupid prices they're asking for this stuff and the lack of any attempt to prosicute illegal distributers is basically the same as declairing open season for anyone who wants to pirate the stuff.

Lemegeton300on Dec. 22, 2008 at 1:13 a.m.
obviously if its illegal then he needs to face the consequences but going to prison for something like this is fucking ridiculous. prisons are for people who are a threat to society, sending people to jail for breaching copyright laws is sick

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