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Fansubs... Our perspective

by Justin Sevakis,
When I first started Anime News Network, I included regular "fansub updates" as a part of the regular news. I thought, hey, it's a big part of fandom whether the companies like it or not. In recent months, my attention has wained, and I probably wouldn't have noticed had someone not pointed out to me that all mention of fansubs had all but disappeared from our pages.

Fansubs, as I'm sure everyone is aware, is a pretty sticky issue. For those that are unfamiliar with the concept, fansubs are subtitled versions of anime produced by fans for the purpose of enjoyment by themselves and/or others in the hopes that it will attract the attention of a commercial company, who would license and release the series. As you can imagine, there are a few problems with this...

First and foremost, there's the fact that the entire concept is a blatant violation of international copyright law. (Some claim that various aspects of the Berne convention or the fair use clause, but this would only cover making the sub for yourself, and not giving it to others.) The Japanese companies have been very kind to the fan community so far in allowing it to continue for the most part, and many of the original creators are flattered to have what are essentially bootleg copies of their works being circulated in other countries.

In order to show them as much respect as possible, 95% of all fansubbers adhere to a somewhat similar code of ethics (and constantly berate those that don't). This does not allow them to profit in any way from the creation or distribution of the fansubtitled works. Old-school fansubbers frown on those who accept donations with which to pay for translations (a necessity, as free translators become less and less common) and those that distribute fansubs much like an online retailer, except that they only charge enough to cover their costs (about $6-8 US, including 2-3 day shipping), in favor of the method where the fan sends in their tape to be copied, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope.

While these fans make valid points that fansubs should not have anything to do with money, this way of doing things is simply unrealistic. Anime fandom has grown by leaps and bounds, and the following fansubs have has gotten much bigger as well. The SASE method requires a lot more time and space (you can't run copies in tandem and stock them), and no sane person could ever fill the requests of the amount of people that want them in such a manner. Then there's the problem of people who can't follow directions, people who buy cheap tape that could easily clog the heads of a well-worn VCR, and people that forget to write what they want on the tapes!

This brings up another problem: Commercial companies, for the most part, don't seem to appreciate fansubs very much any more. They argue that they impact their sales by distributing low-cost or free copies of things that they must then license to a partially saturated market. (This logic doesn't seem to cover the numerous fans who would be just as likely to make themselves a bootleg copy of the COMMERCIAL version!) They argue that the market has grown to a point where they no longer need fansubs to tell them what's popular and what's not. While this may be partially true (ADV certainly didn't need anyone to tell them Evangelion was a winner), it is just the opposite for many titles. Think Fushigi Yuugi would have become so popular and eventually become licensed had it not been for the efforts of one Oregon housewife and her husband? Certainly not!!

The fansubbers are mostly very willing to comply and cohabitate with the commercial companies, but many times fansub enthusiasts (NOT the subbers themselves) make it difficult. Some see fansubs as a cheap replacement for commercial copies, and worse, see a company licensing the series as "screwing over" the fans. Can you imagine newbie fans e-mailing a commercial company, bitching them out for licensing a series that they haven't yet collected in its entirety in fansubbed form? ("How dare you do something legal that puts a stop to my illegal practice?!") It's happened... and fairly regularly at that. (Some blame the fansubbers for making their subtitles look too professional, but if a commercial company with professional editing facilities can't match what a bunch of broke fans can do on $300 equipment, who's fault is that?)

It's important that we keep our perspective. Fansubs are nice, but the commercial side is where most of the action is, and ANN will always concentrate on that. However, we'll be stopping in on the fansub community to see what's going on from time to time. (If you're a fansubber that values their privacy, simply e-mail us asking us not to mention you, or simply don't post your announcements to the fansub announcement mailing list.) Further, we'll be reviewing some of the more noteworthy titles, and have a special column on fansubs that we're reletively certain will never, ever get licensed. In such a case, the fansub would be the only way an English speaker would ever get to see it and know what's going on. Maybe with a bit more attention, they will get licensed.

There's no pleasing everyone, but this was by far the most requested feature of ANN in our last poll, and it's clear that enough people want it. I'm sure some will be a little bit PO'ed at the lenient point of view we're taking, but if you don't like the new sections, don't read them.

Meantime, here's some ways to help the fansub communtiy--and fans in general-- get along with the commercial companies a bit better...


  • First and foremost, make an effort to replace your fansubbed and bootlegged copies with the commercial ones. If you've grown attached to the fansubs, feel free to hold onto them (so long as you don't copy it for anyone), but it's important to patronize those who are on the LEGAL side of this hobby... While this is very expensive, just do it whenever you can, and feel good about it.

  • Fansubbers should really release their scripts for use by others. Some don't feel comfortable doing this, as they feel that others might wreck their creativity. Well, the property doesn't really belong to them in the first place, and they should be doing something that encourages others to get the Japanese LD's... something that would actually give the Japanese companies some money back? Do it for your the interest of the anime, not for your own artistic integrity. (Some argue that their translation staff won't let them release the script... dunno what to do about that.)

  • Ask the commercial companies to please consider purchasing the rights to a fansub you like. This not only helps out the commercial company in finding what its audience wants, but is the actual purpose for fansubs in the first place.

  • Be patient! Instant gratification is not a right, especially not in the world of anime. (The Japanese have to wait a week between TV episodes, months between OAV episodes, and sometimes years between movies.) It might be annoying, but it won't kill you to wait a while, even if that is a long while. (They're releasing these things as fast as they can... you don't want quality to suffer if they rush, do you?)

  • Fer Christ's sake, DON'T FLAME THE COMMERCIAL COMPANIES IN THE NAME OF FANSUBS!! This one should be common sense, but everyone has little moments where their common sense goes bye-bye. Don't flame Viz asking for a subtitled release of Please Save My Earth, offer to start a sponsorship program similar to what AnimEigo is doing. Don't bitch ADV out for licensing Nadia before your collection got to the island episodes, send them a letter of support, asking them to get to that part of the series as soon as possible!

  • Admit fansubs exist, and that you use them. The truth is, not one commercial company does not have at least one employee that gets fansubs from various distributors. In most cases, someone at the company was once a part of the fansub circle. Admiting this is letting the fans know that 1.) Their voices are being heard, 2.) You are willing to become friends with fandom, and 3.) you support their enthusiasm for anime in general. Of course, emphasize that once you license a product, it is forbidden to pass the fansub around, and that your product should be purchased, but this can be done in ways that don't condescend. The Right Stuf, for example, had a Fansub Amnesty program, in which people could send in their fansubbed copies for 50% off the legal copy of the first volume. This is a step in the right direction, and we should see more moves like that.
  • Announce your licenses well ahead of time and LOUDLY, so that fans can pull the subs before your lawyers get to them. They really do want to help, and almost everyone will be happy to pull something you've licensed, but a cease & desist order just brings a fansubber's whole day down... and their opinion of you with it.

  • Put some work into your product. It's very obvious when a company doesn't really care about a project, because the work is usually very sloppy. Subtitled versions usually suffer quite a bit. Viz's subtitled version of Key the Metal Idol, for example, was simply pathetic. There is no excuse for a commercial product that does not look as good as a fansub-- PERIOD. Why would someone want to replace something they have with something inferior? If fans rave about a particular fan translation, contact the fansubber and offer to repay them for their translation costs for the use of their script (but have someone check it first). DVD releases help a lot too... I admit that I would probably wince at replacing all 52 episodes of Fushigi Yuugi with VHS copies, but DVD? I'm sold...

  • Listen to the nice fans, ignore the jerks. The nice fans ARE on your side, whether they use fansubs or not. They DO want you to be successful, because they DO want people to see the stuff you release! Let them know they're being heard. Follow their suggestions if you can. While there's no pleasing everyone, you can really boost your image with some good PR. And if you get a flame, do what most people do... hit the delete key!

  • Although this isn't always possible, try to keep your prices down. Most fans know that the extremely high licensing costs have driven costs very high, but if you can even make the slightest bit of effort, I'm sure it's appreciated by many fans. Remember that anime is a very collection-heavy, expensive hobby, and a collectable series that's 3 episodes per tape at $25 a volume seems a lot better to a prospective buyer than 2 episodes for $30.

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