Is It Ethical To Import Anime From Other Countries?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jason asks:

What do Japanese licence holders think of people in the UK importing US region 1 discs? How legal is this? Some times a show never seems to get a UK release and isn't available for streaming either.

Japanese producers and licensors generally think of videogram (DVD/BD) sales in two tiers: the super-high priced Japanese discs (and the US repackagings of those high priced discs, like those by Aniplex USA and Ponycan), and all of the other releases from the rest of the world. They care a lot about the first category. While those high priced Japanese releases aren't quite as important to the bottom line as they were a few years ago, they're still a REALLY REALLY important part of making back the budget of a series.

And then there are the releases from everywhere else in the world -- the US, the UK, Australia, and non-English speaking countries. And those discs are important and do add to the bottom line, but the revenue from those is lower (in part because the discs are cheaper) and is received indirectly.

Do the producers really care which one of those you buy? Not particularly. There's a chance that the deal terms by which the license worked in one country is more favorable to them than that of another country, but as consumers we'd never know, and frankly it's none of our business. It IS slightly better for them if you buy your own country's anime goods, simply because they'll have better data of what products work in each territory. While American and UK anime fans are not really very different at all, the markets do differ slightly: the American market is a bit more receptive to premium collector's editions; the UK market is a bit more receptive to artistic feature films. That general knowledge guides negotiations for future releases in that area.

That said, if you live in a smaller market like the UK or Australia, it's generally a good idea to support your local anime publishers, if you want to have a local publishing market at all. Those smaller markets only sell a handful of discs, so each sale really does count. And if you want the licensors to prioritize making anime streams and discs available in that market, it is important to make your voice heard.

Is it legal? I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, but it's pretty well established that, thanks to the First-sale Doctrine of both US and EU copyright law, it pretty much seems to be. (The UK is still part of the EU as of this writing.) The first sale doctrine states that the rights and control of a copyright owner over a single piece of physical media end the moment they sell it to someone. For example, if Sentai is contractually and legally not allowed to sell their discs to the UK, but if they were to sell a bunch of discs to an online retailer, and that retailer shipped to the UK, that would be OK.

For many years this was a total legal gray area, because another part of the US copyright statute, §602(a), states that "importation into the United States, without the authority of the owner of copyright under this title, of copies or phonorecords of a work that have been acquired outside the United States is an infringement of the exclusive right to distribute copies or phonorecords." This seems to directly contradict the First-sale doctrine because it specifically forbids importing copyrighted media when there's already a legal domestic publisher for it. But in a landmark 2013 case, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., the Supreme Court declared that imports were OK if they were legally licensed to begin with. In other words, §602(a) would make importing Chinese bootlegs illegal, but not properly licensed discs.

There are plenty of discs released in the US that aren't available in the UK and Australia, and there are a few cases where the opposite is true. I've personally imported a few foreign Blu-rays myself, both for anime and live action stuff. If you have a region free player of some kind, and you know the disc you're buying is legit, I don't really see any harm in doing so -- especially if there's a particular reason why you can't buy a domestic version.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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