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Answerman
How Does A New Distributor Get Permission To Reuse Old Dubs?

by Justin Sevakis,

Ivan asked:

It's well known by now that ANIPLEX USA is distributing Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood after FUNimation did it for years, and the English version with the voice actors and actresses fans know will return too. My question is regarding how ANIPLEX USA was able to obtain the rights to use their voices for their new release? Are there any negotiations or legal processes with the people involved in the production of the dub including the ADR Director?

When an anime distributor licenses an anime, there is usually a clause in the contract that says that any new work produced specifically for that show automatically becomes the property of the Japanese rights holder. That includes any subtitle scripts, English show logos, packaging, advertising copy, and -- yes -- any foreign language audio. Once it's made, most licensing offices in Japan request a copy, and often they re-use it themselves or give it to other partners around the world for release in other English speaking territories (if that distributor isn't working with the American distributor already). Typically the American distributor is the one paying to produce all of these things, but often they can keep track of how much they spent on it, and "recoup" those costs, so the licensors really only get those things for free if the show doesn't make back its costs. "Recouping" means that the publisher gets to pay itself back for its production costs (along with the up-front license fee) before paying any royalties back to Japan.

There are cases where the contract does not give the right to use English dubs back to the the Japanese licensor -- typically these are older contracts (pre-2004 or so). In that case, once the license expires, the licensor has to negotiate with the publisher to "buy out" the rights to that dub, even though technically nobody can use that dub without the rights to the show itself. If the license ended acrimoniously (i.e. the publisher wanted to extend the deal but the licensor refused) this can sometimes be difficult. There are quite a few cases where English dubs can no longer be reused because the two companies had a bad falling out and the licensor doesn't want to deal with the American publisher.

When English dubs are produced, all of the talent, including the director and ADR writer(s) sign talent contracts. Those contracts basically say, "you did this work for us, and for that we are paying you $X. You don't own any piece of the work, there will be no further pay, and this is the total extent of the agreement between us." So, the people that work on dubs don't get any residuals or royalties. They don't get to sign off on deals involving the dub they helped make. It's purely a "work for hire" sort of deal. They never need to be spoken to again.

In cases where the licensor never successfully bought out the dub, but the original producer of that dub went out of business (like dubs produced by Central Park Media or Streamline Pictures, for example), the licensor may tell a new publisher, "if you want that dub, we won't stop you, but if someone comes after you for using it, you're on your own." In the cases where that original publisher is really (legally) dead, and a new publisher can use their dubs without any fear of retribution. However, if the company still sorta exists in some form (like ADV), re-using a dub owned by them without permission can be legally risky.

Re-using subtitle scripts isn't a big deal to most companies. There are only so many ways of translating dialogue, subtitle scripts are relatively cheap to produce, and any frustration over a new publisher re-using their work is tempered by the fact that it's usually not worth the effort to make a stink about it. Dubs, however, are expensive -- and they used to be far more expensive. Re-using a dub without the right to do so has the potential to cause a fracas. Maybe they wouldn't sue, per se, but they can send an angry email at the very least.

There are still other cases where changes made to a dub that the original creators don't approve of, and once the original distribution contract ends the licensors make every attempt to bury it. But that's another topic.


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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.


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