In an interesting display of timing (almost as if he read my article on fansubbing the other day!), Ars Technica’s Nate Anderson asked three anonymous anime fans why they continue to download shows via Bittorrent even when they are available for free on-line watching at sources such as Hulu. This comes in the context of a suit a peer-to-peer lawyer filed against 1,337 BitTorrent sharers (yes, the lawyer chose that number intentionally) of a One Piece episode last month on behalf of anime importer FUNimation.

As I noted in my own article, the major reason comes down to the quality of the translation work. Fansubbers, the anime downloaders noted, consistently do a better job with the translation, including footnotes and explanations of obscure references that add a great deal to understanding of the shows.

Otaku3 chimed in. "Fansubs also go out of their way to point out cultural stuff in the video itself, whereas ‘official’ dubs or even subs just try to pretend it doesn’t exist. Some fansubs even go so far as to have screenfuls of text at the beginning or end to explain the cultural context of a particular episode."

And in another note that relates to something I suggested, Anderson adds at the end:

As for what businesses like FUNimation can do to lure in the pirates, one focus group member had a thought. "I’ve always wondered why they don’t just hire the fansubbers," he said.

In a discussion on the forum of the Detective Conan Translation Project in which I mentioned that article, DCTP staff member “Jd-“ chimed in:

Personally speaking, and I have said this on IRC and such any number of times: If there were ever the opportunity for our team to do what we do in an official capacity, whether it be for FUNimation or TMS or whoever, I can’t see us turning such an offer down. I can’t speak for everyone, but I would do it for minimal compensation (and, as you suggested, not even strictly in monetary terms). The reason I’ve worked on Conan for so many years now is simply because I think it is one series that deserves to be available, in full, to as many people as possible. If we were to have access to greater resources to accomplish what it is we do, we could certainly change the game a bit.

And other fans chimed in with amazement at how DCTP was able to replace the text in its subs so well that many people couldn’t believe they weren’t there in the original version. And some people brought up the point Frode Aleksandersen mentioned in a comment to my post that some fans consider it “manipulating the original artwork”, and pointed out that those people should just be importing  the unaltered version since adding subtitles on top of it at all was changing the art.

Regardless, this is a case where the commercial companies are not providing what fans want—and other fans are willing to provide. This has a lot of resonance with things that are going on in the e-book industry now. Harry Potter fans want e-books, but the publisher and author aren’t willing to provide them. People want e-books that are being sold overseas from them, but the publishers aren’t willing to provide them. Yes, “because I want it” is not a good excuse to take what’s not yours—but by the same token, a business failing to recognize what its customers want and figure out how to provide it is leaving money on the table and outright provoking piracy.


  1. I wouldn’t really call those reasons so much as excuses people tell themselves to justify not paying for content. The companies have provided liner notes and cultural notes for various releases in various forms. Just how much and in what way depends on the particular release. Something like Pani Poni Dash for instance had an extra subtitle track which contains a ton of information. Not every release requires or deserves that kind of attention however.

    So the companies have to make a choice about just how much they do – if you were to satisfy all the things people could potentially want, you’d end up with like 10 subtitle tracks and 4 alternate video angles. You can’t make everyone happy, so you have to go with what sells. This also goes for most of the other things people usually mention that they like about fansubs – if it’s technically possible on a DVD, it’s been done at some point. If it’s not being done today, it’s because it’s either because of technical issues or because it simply doesn’t make economic sense. If adding multicolored karaoke styled subtitles would lead to significantly increased sales, all releases would have them. Some do, but it’s more a case of experimenting to see what works, or the company wanting to go the extra mile because they love the show.

    Fansubbers also not only work in the industry (where do you think the people came from who started these companies?), but that’s still the major source of recruitment. I was a fansubber before I turned pro, and a lot of the people I know in the industry have had that kind of background at some point. I also know of one company that routinely outsources subtitle and translation to fansubbers for instance. At their core, anime studios are made up of anime fans. It’s a business that’s extremely close to the customer for the most part. They take a very active part at cons, forums etc., which is more than you can say for a lot of the large ebook publishers. There are some companies that don’t do this, but they’re more the exception than the rule.

    The problem is simply what you can make money from, and as I mentioned previously fansubs have two things commercial releases can’t compete with: availability and price. Even though some shows are now finally being simulcast over the web, the streams are region restricted due to contractual limitations. They’re also streams, and downloaded files have some advantages that are reminiscent of DRM free ebooks: You can play/view them when you want, where you want on whatever device you want, without ads, buffering or being restricted to a particular viewer app or browser. Streaming anime needs a revenue model, and unfortunately that precludes free downloads fansub style.

    The US anime industry didn’t fail because they didn’t listen to the fans – they failed because of the factors I listed in my earlier reply. Quality is not the issue – if it was, people wouldn’t watch fansubs either due to inaccurate translations and mistakes.

  2. “Why doesn’t the industry just hire the fans?”

    Because the fans don’t want to work. They want to play. If a fansubber gets bored with a series, they go do something else. If a series sits there unfinished for three years, then nothing bad happens (except for snarky comments on YouTube, that is.)

    Because the fans want to work on what they want to work on. This is why there were something like six groups fansubbing “Macross Frontier”. Do you think that fans would be happy subtitling all fifty-two episodes of, say, “Nekomimi Maid Girls Sushi Party”?

    Because there are far more fans than there are jobs. It’s not as though there are thousands of hours of anime that translators are working ten-hour days to plow through.

    Because, in the end, the fans wouldn’t offer anything better. It’s not like the fans have amazing spectacular talents that industry simply can’t reproduce. As Frode points out, all the described “better features” of fansubs could be done by industry subbers. The industry subbers just have less time to do the job.

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