Guest post by Mikhail Koulikov
I published a paper in the September 2010 volume of TWC that modeled the interaction between fan groups that create and distribute unauthorized, non-commercial translations of Japanese animation (‘anime’), and the for-profit companies that do the same under license from the original creators as a ‘net war’ (an emerging mode of conflict…, in which the protagonists use – indeed, depend on using – network forms of organization).
In my article, I highlighted several particular forms that these interactions have taken. In some cases, the for-profit companies have essentially ignored the fan group activities, for both strategic and tactical reasons. In others, they have taken specific actions, ranging from flat-out offensives such as issuing cease-and-desist letters, to adopting the fan groups’ skills and methods and hiring the fan translators to produce authorized translations, to appealing to audiences directly to educate them that access to anime is ‘not a right’ and that the interaction has to occur on commercial terms.
If you know where to look, over this past week, a major battle of this ‘net war’ has occurred.
Although the Japanese animation that most Americans are familiar with is major theatrical productions, such as the first Pokemon movie (1999, U.S. gross of $86M; $136M worldwide), or the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2002), the vast majority of the anime that is actually released in the U.S. are television series. From the late 1980’s to the late 00’s, these were generally licensed, translated and then distributed on VHS and DVD by a small stable of specialized companies. Over the last couple of years, as the home video market essentially crashed, many of these have shut down. Several others, though, have been able to transform themselves into content management and distribution shops, with actual physical production of DVD’s being only one of their functions. The largest and most successful has been Funimation (a subsidiary of the Navarre Corporation, which according to its website, “provides computer software, home entertainment media, consumer electronics and accessories distribution, third party logistics, supply chain management and other related services for North American retailers and their suppliers.”).
Funimation’s current business model is based on acquiring the U.S. broadcast and distribution rights to a given Japanese animation series while the series is still in production. As soon as the series airs on Japanese television, Funimation is ready with an authorized translation (using the skills and services of former fan subbers now gone ‘official’); within hours of a Japanese television broadcast, English-subtitled episodes are made available on the proprietary Funimation.com website, as well as on several third-party sites (Animenewsnetwork.com, and Hulu.com, among others). Much later – usually, several months – Funimation releases the series on DVD, complete with a marketing campaign, English dub, various extras, and attractive packaging, to appeal to both the hard-core collectors and the casual watcher.
The hitch in all of this is that while Funimation and the other companies that are still operating in the field are pursuing their business models, fan groups are still pursuing theirs – the key difference, of course, being that while Funimation needs to pay licensing costs to acquire the rights to a series, pay their staff to translate and produce it, and then deal with distributors to actually get it to viewers, the fan sub groups may incur some expenses, but they are simply not thinking about revenues.
And so, we have a battle in the fan sub war.
Unlike in the U.S., the Japanese television broadcasting year is divided into four seasons, with new shows starting roughly in January, April, July and October. And every season sees the launch of a dozen or more new anime series. One that launched earlier this month, and was anticipated most eagerly, is Fractale – a fanciful story about a future where most humans choose to interact with each other using CG avatars, and a boy who decides not to, and navigates the avatars’ world in his own body. Fractale gained immediate “fan cred” by consciously referencing Hayao Miyazaki’s classic images, designs and settings; that the original story is written by the philosopher and literary critic Hiroki Azuma doesn’t hurt either.
The first episode of Fractale aired in Japan on January 13, and that same day, starting at 10:45 a.m. (CST), Funimation made a translation available on its website.
So far so good.
On January 19, the production committee that is the official copyright holder for the series informed Funimation that because unauthorized videos of the episode were available elsewhere on the Internet – on streaming sites, file-sharing networks, and file servers – it was requesting that Funimation suspend its authorized simulcast of any further episodes.
When the announcement was made public on the Anime News Network forums, it drew almost 400 comments. Speaking privately to both fans and industry professionals, though, it was clear that some perceived the situation as a rather typical instance of Japanese content-holders misunderstanding the American market. Others saw the entire situation as a well-designed attempt by the content-holders to act in an expected way. One fan comment described the situation thus: “Japanese company can look upset, Funimation can make public announcements about clamping down on unauthorized distribution. Then after a few days or a week they can then resume the simulcast and we go back to the status quo.”
In fact, it appears that this is exactly what has happened.
According to a statement that Funimation issued on Monday, January 24:
“In recent days we have been diligently tracking the online illegal distribution of the anime series Fractale and on behalf of the rights holders we have been taking the appropriate legal action. As a result, we now have the approval of the Fractale Production Committee to stream episode 2 of the series starting today.”
Will this resumption of streaming necessarily stop the fan sub groups? Probably not. But it serves as a good example of the delicate dance that takes place on a daily basis in a particular corner of the transformative works and cultures universe.