conancover Publishers Weekly has a piece on Japanese and American manga publishers banding together to oppose “scanlations”—the manga equivalent of animé fansubs, where fans translate and repost manga for the benefit of non-Japanese readers.

What they are objecting to is not so much the process itself (which they say has been going on since the ‘70s—have scanners even been around that long?) but a number of “scanlation aggregator” sites that gather together scanlations from all over. They are threatening legal action against 30 scanlation-aggregation sites.

According to a spokesperson, these sites are among the most heavily trafficked sites on the web attracting millions of visits each month while earning advertising revenues and even soliciting donations and sometimes charging for memberships. The group also charges that pirated manga is now beginning to turn up on smartphones and other wireless devices through the use of apps developed “solely to link to and republish the content of scanlations sites.”

It used to be that scanlations were, like fansubs, strictly noncommercial and only done for titles that were not being imported to America. (This is the case for the scanlation title I read regularly, Detective Conan—only the first few dozen volumes of the 700+ issue manga were released in English versions, and now fans translate the rest.) If and when the titles were brought over, the scanlators would voluntarily pull their versions in support of the commercial publisher.

But the Publishers Weekly article says that the aggregation sites now include licensed titles, including direct scans of commercial English-language editions. While manga publishers and retailers used to think scanlations built a market for yet-to-be-licensed titles by raising awareness of them (in much the same way Baen and Cory Doctorow have found free e-books raise awareness for their printed versions), the manga publishers’ association now claims that the rise of these sites is directly related to a recent decline in American manga sales.

As I said in my review of Comic Zeal, I’ve suspected for a while now that the iPad would shine a spotlight on the rampant piracy of comics, but I expected to see more focus on the scanning and posting of American comics as CBRs. I wonder if the launch of the iPad in Japan has something to do with the timing involved?

Ethical Questions

The ethics of fansubs and scanlations has long been a topic of spirited debate in anime and manga fandom circles. On the one hand, it is technically piracy, the redistribution of content owned by someone else, and is just as illegal as the people who camcord movies in theaters and post them to peer-to-peer networks.

On the other, the perception of it is a bit different, as there is a lot more actual work involved in putting together a good translation than in most normal piracy which is generally a matter of “encode and post”. And many fansubbers and scanlators will only touch works that have not been and are not likely to be licensed for American distribution. (Though this seems to be becoming less and less the case in some circles.)

And in the past, scanlations have been used by American manga publishers to identify hot new titles that they could then license:

"Frankly, I find it kind of flattering, not threatening," says TokyoPop’s Steve Kleckner. "To be honest, I believe that if the music industry had used downloading and file sharing properly, it would have increased their business, not eaten into it. And, hey, if you get 2,000 fans saying they want a book you’ve never heard of, well, you gotta go out and get it."

But I suppose it only takes the proverbial “few bad apples” to spoil things for everyone. Hopefully even if these commercial aggregators meet a possibly-deserved fate, the practice can continue for unlicensed titles.

(Found via The Digital Reader.)


  1. Interesting that it has taken “Japanese and American” publishers banding together to act on this issue. Japanese manga publishers have long tolerated what they call the “doujinshi” culture of artists taking and modifying existing manga. In Free Culture, Lessig suggested the tolerance was due to a lack of lawyers in Japan; my own impression has always been that there is a recognition that the doujinshi actually enriches the manga universe (creative new story lines, for one).

  2. The trigger for all this was Google posted a 1000 top sites, and among those was a scanlation site that was much higher up than all the legit manga publisher sites. It also was an aggregator site as mentioned – it had a lot of manga available. This made the news at one of the web sites covering the industry, and that snowballed from that.

    Incidentally, I think there’s a lot that can be learned from the anime/manga industry when it comes to digital downloads (legit and otherwise) and their effects. I could even do a decent writeup on how it’s affected sales, and what marketing models worked/didn’t work – I think it’s very applicable to how it’s going to affect ebook sales in particular.

  3. (which they say has been going on since the ‘70s—have scanners even been around that long?)

    Before there were scanners, there were copiers, Chris… and they were achieving 300dpi reproductive quality in the 70s. They would be hand-copied, translations cut and pasted in, and reprinted from the paper plates. That’s how most bootleg operations (and some legit ones) were doing it.

    If you take a look at old scanlation material (and some legitimately-printed material), you’d see the muddy gray areas that are usually a sign of a 600dpi halftone screen run through a 300dpi copier, and coming out noticeably the worse for wear. And if you looked close, you’d also see the cut and paste marks for the translation text.

    I’m sure the timing has a lot to do with the iPad’s introduction in Japan, but it could have happened with any other tablet that proved popular. At any rate, hopefully the added attention to the industry will help along the process of converting it to a vibrant digital market.

  4. “And in the past, scanlations have been used by American manga publishers to identify hot new titles that they could then license”

    It’s the same with fansubbed anime. Fullmetal Alchemist is a good example of something that only came over here because of the huge popularity of the fansub downloads. I read that the founders of Funimation, the largest US translator and distributor of anime, started out doing fansubs.

    “At any rate, hopefully the added attention to the industry will help along the process of converting it to a vibrant digital market.”

    Amen. I would love to purchase e-versions of certain manga volumes (I no longer ever buy print) but they don’t exist at all legitimately. Money left on the table.

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