I stirred up a riot at Anime News Network a couple weeks back over the licensing of School Rumble, which I thought was the dumbest idea FUNimation ever made in the history of its founding.
Apparently, my rhetoric angered some individuals, and for this week's "Answerman" column, Zac Bertschy posted a rant (clearly directed towards me) regarding the ethical ramifications of fansubbing.
So, instead of writing specifically for ANN, I'd like to see what a more partisan and clear thinking group of fans would think regarding the issue; I'm going to make the assumption that you lot are more educated/aware than the poorly informed fools who make assertions there, so please do not let me down.
The website ICv2 recently posted a brief article about FUNimation’s release plans for School Rumble. The article also pointed out that School Rumble is one of the most prominent Media Factory titles licensed since Media Factory requested that fansubbing stop on all their titles, and that it would be interesting to see how well School Rumble fares on store shelves. This brought back to me something that has annoyed me for years: the persistent, baseless claims of fansub apologists that fansubbing actually benefits commercial anime distributors by boosting sales.
On the off chance some of you may not have heard it before, the argument goes something like this: fansubbers watch new shows that other fans have never seen or heard of, talk about them and create a ‘buzz’ around shows that inspires other fans to buy those shows if and when they get released over here. That same buzz helps guide distributors to shows that will sell well and thus serves as a form of free market research. To support these claims, fansub defenders like to point out that shows which are popular among fansubbers are more likely to sell well than shows that don’t generate much fansub interest. This argument is about as logically airtight as claiming UFOs are the only possible explanation for crop circles. Let’s take a look a couple of those logical flaws.
Confusing cause and effect: The pro-fansub argument assumes that the only reason—or at least the primary reason—why shows succeed or fail commercially in the US is because of the buzz generated by the fansub community. This is the great logical error of assuming that something which happens first must necessarily be the cause of what happens after, and ignores a whole host of other reasons why shows succeed or fail. Full Metal Alchemist was very popular in fansub circles and has been a major sales success as well; Daphne in the Brilliant Blue on the other hand has been a mediocre performer in both arenas. I don’t suppose it ever occurred to any fansubber that the difference in both sales and fansub popularity could be due to the fact that FMA is an excellent show that appeals to a broad spectrum of anime fans, while Daphne is a cliché-heavy exercise in fan service that was niche marketed directly at a small group of anime fans. In other words, it makes more sense to see the quality of any show as the cause which creates the effect of both sales numbers and fansub interest.
Ignoring the competition: The pro-fansub argument has never really adapted itself to the 21st Century. It still assumes that it is 1995 and the principal way that other fans learn about interesting new shows is from fansubbers at their local clubs or on old-fashioned BBS. Fansubbers tend to ignore the fact that there numerous ways fans in the Internet age can learn about new shows. In the channels frequented by hardcore fans, fansubbers are competing with news services like ANN, blog and forum postings from fans who have seen the original broadcasts instead of fansubs, show-specific websites that often post trailers before a show even begins to air in Japan, the availability of the translated source manga in the US before a show airs in Japan, and ready access to both English language and Japanese print magazines. The best anyone can realistically claim for fansubs is that they may well be one source among many that contribute to the buzz surrounding new shows within hardcore fan circles. Among the less dedicated casual anime fans (who represent the real reason behind the breakout success of shows like FMA and Samurai Champloo), fansub influence is even dodgier. Few such fans frequent the places where fansubbers hold court, and are likely rely on more readily accessible sources of information like newsstand magazines and manga or TV broadcasts. When you consider the fact that it is a truism in the current anime market that a show must reach the casual fan (precisely those fans least likely to feel the influence of fansub buzz) in order to achieve more than middling profitability, it becomes harder to sustain the argument that fansubs contribute greatly to the sales success of any show.
The elephant in the room: This is the part of the equation fansubbers hate to acknowledge: fansubs cost legitimate distributors sales. We all realize that there are the upright few who always buy everything they download, and at the other end of the spectrum are the jerks with twisted moral codes who refuse to ever pay for their anime. In between the two lie the vast majority of fansubbers, folks who buy some but not all of the shows they download, for any number of reasons, valid or not. Within this large middle group there are inevitably people who would buy some show or other if they hadn’t already seen the whole thing via fansubs. Whether because they lack the funds to buy everything they download, or only choose to pay for shows they really liked, these fans actively avoid purchasing commercial anime that they would have bought if they didn’t have access to free fansubs. How many more DVDs would fansubbers buy if they didn’t have access to dowloads? Aside from the fact that the number must be substantially larger than zero, it is hard to say. Is that number larger or smaller than the number of sales that can legitimately be attributed to fansub buzz at the exclusion of any other influences? Again, it is hard to say, but the question itself is highly revealing and pretty much never acknowledged by fansub apologists. Even if fansubs generate sales among fans who don’t download themselves, it is possible that those sales don’t compensate for the sales lost to the fansubbers themselves who don’t end up buying shows they download.
It should be obvious by now that my personal opinion is that fansubs do not in fact contribute much of anything to the success or failure of commercial anime releases, and in the final analysis probably hurt more than they help. However, as my last point above illustrates, I can’t really prove that. Why? Because no one has ever done a single statistically and scientifically valid study of the subject. Until someone does a valid study of the buying habits of regular downloaders, or sorts out exactly how much of the buzz around new shows is genuinely attributable to fansubs, or does a statistically broad study of the sales of different types of shows and can compare the figures for shows that were aggressively fansubbed against those that weren’t, no one can say with any certainty that fansubs do or do not help boost commercial sales.
The real point of my argument, therefore, is not to prove that fansubs don’t boost sales, but to pull the teeth of those self-righteous fansubbers who claim that they do as if it were already an indisputably proven fact. The fact is that their arguments are shabby, anecdotal and logically flawed, and to my eyes seem to be aimed as much at an egotistical effort to place themselves at the center of the otaku universe as at justifying behavior that is, at its core, pure piracy. It’s about time we stopped letting them off the hook by refusing to contest their claims. Fansubbers, download all you want, as it is no business of mine. But until you can provide genuine proof that your behavior benefits the anime industry, stop pretending that it is anything but self-serving.
So, everyone, what do you think? I'll present my arguments in due time.