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The Curious Case of Copyright and Anime, posted by CJ Ovalle

As the others allude to in the About section, in my Real Life I do a great deal with copyright.

The Anime Industry runs on copyright infringement.

Just about everything the fan community does with anime is infringing somehow. This type of statement could be made about fandom in general, but it’s particularly true with anime. And the anime industry wouldn’t exist as we know it without it- in Japan as well as the US.

In Japan, we see a thriving doujinshi industry, fan-created comics that may use the characters and character designs of other works. They’re highly derivative, highly original, highly accepted, and highly illegal. In “Free Culture,” Lessig attributes this to Japan’s lack of lawyers. In many cases, creators and industry people don’t seem to care, or even approve. Some famous manga authors got their start with doujin.

Anime did make it to the US in a limited fashion (most famously, Macross, Voltron, but also things like Grandizer, Spaceketeers, and Battle of the Planets). The practices of trading fansubs (fan-subtitled works) and fan translations grew the industry tremendously. Then and today, there could be problems with just about everything fans do. Fansubs, fan translations, fan art, fan fiction, anime music videos, anime showings, all of it- all very possibly infringing.

But the anime industry wouldn’t exist without the fans, and notably the work of the fansubbers- without people in Japan taping shows off the air or laserdisc, and sending the shows to their friends overseas. Without people translating the shows and making subtitled versions and sending those versions to their friends. Without distribution being set up, particularly after the rise in popularity of the Internet. Without fan clubs showing the works in local communities and local universities. And all of those actions are potential infringement.

The anime community, and particularly the fansub community, developed a code of ethics. Don’t sell fansubs. People can pay for the cost of the media and shipping, but that’s it. (At that time, video over the Internet was unthinkable except in stargazing dreams.) Encourage the purchase of US licensed anime goods. Stop distributing material once it’s been licensed in the US. People really didn’t worry about copyright law so much. That’s not just true in the anime world, it’s pre-Internet (really if you want to go back a bit further, pre-VCR), but it just didn’t come up quite as much. You can trace mentions of copyright in news stories and journals and so on going back decades- issues with copyright have increased exponentially. It used to be something lawyers worried about, and became something that everyone has to worry about. There are a variety of reasons for this. I talk about it quite a bit in my other blog, but take a look at books by Lawrence Lessig, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and William Patry if you’re inclined to learn more on the subject.

But things happened. File-sharing became possible, then prevalent. People panicked. Laws changed. The anime industry and anime fandom was part of all of this and caught up in all of this. There’s still an uneasy codependent relationship there, which is different from the relationship between the **AAs and other types of fans. There have been a few research papers on the subject which you can probably find with a little digging (I’ll post some after I have a bit more time to dig them up).

At any rate, this tension between copyright law and ethics, between fans and producers, still exists. I certainly buy a lot of anime. But I’ve also watched fansubs, and I’ve also participated in anime showings and conventions and a lot of the other fan activity that occurs.

Like anything else involving copyright, the subject is not black and white, and it’s not easy, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is.

One Comment

  1. Derek

    I still have 20-30 VHS cassettes of anime series I copy from Kurt. I’ve gotten official copies of many of them over time, but the fansubs are still my favorites in most cases. In some ways I wonder if anime isn’t somewhat like Nick Jr. – the cartoons exist primarily as a vehicle to drive people to buy stuff related to it. I know I’ve certainly bought my share of Ranma 1/2 knick knacks – I still have a resin cast Shampu and P-Chan sitting on my window sill in the toy collection (I have no idea if they’re licensed or not – I got them off a street vendor in Singapore). My daughter has an A!MG wall scroll hanging in her room. And I own a legit copy of everything Miyazaki’s done, thanks to my exposure.

    So I dunno. It is, clearly, a weird situtation.

    Posted on 14-Apr-10 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

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