Tea with the Rossman
Question about Justin Sevakis' Open Letter to the Industry

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See, sometimes I actually DO get serious mail from people. Mail that requires thought and a well articulated response in order to properly reply and answer the askee's original question... Not that I GIVE any real thought or a well articulated response, I'm just saying that letters like this require that stuff to be fully appreciated. Anyway, here's a question about the legalities of fansubs and their (supposed) destruction of the American anime industry.

Mr. Rossman

Have you read the editorial that Justin Sevakis wrote about the fate of the American anime industry going down the crapper due to fansubbers [Note by the Rossman: the editorial in question follows at the bottom of this page]? What are your thoughts about it if you have? Is he right? Are we all doomed? Should we start turning in fansubbers to the proper authorities like Germans turning in Jews to the Gestapo? Please grant us your wisdom.

Chairman Kagatori(desu)

Chairman Kagatori(desu),

Yes, I have read that Open Letter, and me being me, I of course have some thoughts on it.

First of all, Justin is a well-informed and highly qualified speaker on the subject of anime. No doubt. He knows what the fuck he's talking about whenever the subject comes up... But saying that, I think that there are a few things missing from his analysis of the whole situation. True, yes, there are many factors and many people to blame for this so-called decline in the anime industry (namely the US anime industry), far from the least of whom are the fansubbers and the American companies themselves... But I think the biggest problem is the original creators of the anime.

Now to explain.

This is not the same world as 1997, when US anime fans were simply AMAZED that shows like Evangelion and... well, Evangelion were getting released in the States! On crystal clear VHS! Two whole episodes per $30 tape! We took what we could get back then and we liked it. As Justin pointed out in his letter, fansubs at the time were slow (if you could get them), the quality was shitty, and the translations were questionable at best (ask anybody old enough if they remember Hecto Fansubs and their Heck-no-Flowne release). But still, if you were to release an Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, or Escaflowne today, even with digisubs rampant in this modern age, they'd still make a giant impact. It's my theory that it's the quality of anime as a whole that's fallen in recent years, same as the music industry. And just like the RIAA, the anime industry is blaming the downloaders — the fans. They can't bear to look at themselves in the mirror.

I put this to you: How is the manga industry in America? From what I read, Negima (ugh), Naruto (meh) and Fullmetal Alchemist (nice!) are always listed in the top charts (pretty impressive for a niche product). How can this BE?! They're all series that have been scanslated to death, and yet their official book sales are still exceptional. It's the quality of the work that sells hard copies. But then, what about the Negima, Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist anime DVD sales? They're in the toilet!... Are they? Are they really?

One thing that doesn't add up in Justin's letter is when he states that despite the cost to purchase a series from Japan dropping dramatically, the US companies are still not making a profit on them or even covering the costs of the dubs on certain titles.... Then what the fuck are they in the business for? If US companies are losing money on every title (this is what it sounds like JS is insinuating), then what are they doing in this industry? More importantly what the fuck are they doing wrong beyond "allowing fansubbers to exist?" That's just really shitty business. By the RIAA's reckoning (and Justin's own admittance), music piracy is infinitely more rampant than anime piracy, yet CD (and iTunes MP3) sales in this country are still doing well (some charts I've seen have even shown that music sales have not even declined since Napster, Limewire and Bearshare have taken the scene). Yet fansubs are destroying the anime community. I just don't buy it; especially when you take into account the golden days of American anime fandom — back 10 or so years ago, back when Evangelion ruled and VHS tapes were that much more expensive to produce, and there were a lot LESS fans to buy them. Despite there being no aggressive fansubbing to steal Eva's thunder, the lack of giant hordes of fans to buy the stuff would more than make up for it (in a negative sense)... Yet the companies thrived back then. Back when there were two real anime cons in the country, and people thought that they were both too large to exist with close to *gasp!* 7,000 attendees. Now there are well over 50 cons with those numbers, and the big ones get, what, 60,000 attendees? Not to mention all the new fans getting hooked by all the Death Note, Naruto and Bleach on the tele, raising the number of potential fans/purchasers to numbers undreamed of a decade ago. Too bad all these new fans are just downloading stuff online and not buying the discs... No, I just don't buy it.

To back up a bit, US anime companies are notorious for not releasing sales data on their DVDs. True, I don't doubt in the least that the Negima DVD numbers are really low (that show truly sucked the jelly out of dead cows' uteruses), but the FMA and Naruto anime series have been as close to recreating the wonder (inexplicable as it may be) of Dragon Ball Z on Western shores. Maybe those DVD sales are lower than they might have been without fansubs being released before their official sales in the US (I'll humor the subber-haters out there), but without fansubs nobody would have been as hyped for them as they eventually were to be... Did that make sense? The fansubs were released, people went apeshit for these series, the hype was incredibly high, and that got even more people interested in the shows than who would have even heard of them before their American distribution.

Yes, this is an old argument: Which came first, the fan or the hype. I say the fan. There would be no anime in America today if it wasn't for the fans who created the hype. True, sometimes the hype can backfire or fizzle (look at Haruhi for a prime example of this: Impossibly high hype, but then a fucked up episode order and a few late adopters claiming that the emperor had no clothes [a claim that I don't endorse myself, just saying it happened], and before the final DVD was released people were pooh-poohing it as if the thousands of people who had seen the Haruhi fansubs were simply crazy or morons). Just like how sometimes a show can sneak under the radar of the fansubbers and initial fans to become a major hit (Fruits Basket comes to mind... at least I and all my friends hadn't heard of it until it was released in the States). My point is that hype created by fans/fansubbers can make, break or not impact in the least a show. Yet ALL the BAD SHIT that's happening to the industry is placed solely on their shoulders. Unfair to say the least.

As I was saying before, we're long overdue for another Evangelion or Cowboy Bebop... Something that breaks the boundaries of the anime genre and permeates into the mainstream. I don't think we'll be getting another mega-series the likes of them anytime soon though. This is bad for the industry because it is STALE now. Well, to be fair, anime is pretty stale most the time (honestly, it's mostly been the same retreads of magical girl shows, fighting shows and giant robot shows since I've been into it), but every once in a while we'll get a Chevalier d'Eon, or Ergo Proxy, or Gakutsuou... but even these shows don't have the major star power of the Evangelions and Bebops of old. They're new genres onto themselves, but they're too... strange for mainstream audiences (which is what a superstar show needs to break into). It's because of this that the industry is dwindling, if it indeed is.

I do like Justin's suggestion for possibly stopping free (read "illegal") fansubs (oh yes, they are illegal. I'm not an idiot who'll argue against that): Having industry folk on the other side of the Pacific release stuff to the net (subtitled) in some sort of cheap pay-per-view showing. Most people I know who watch fansubs do so just to SEE the show in question. I personally hate watching things on my computer; I much prefer to sit back on my comfy couch and watch a DVD on my big screen. Those people who don't buy a DVD release of a show they downloaded probably DIDN'T LIKE THE SHOW to begin with. I base my thinking and my theory on this: American TV shows on DVD do incredibly well in sales. This despite the fact that they were already available FOR FREE, during prime time, to whoever wished to watch them (and/or DVR them). Yet people choose to buy them on DVD even after their original broadcast and subsequent airings in syndication. How can this be?! It can be because the consumers LIKE the show and want it in better quality and with bonus features and extras. Pretty much every anime I've reviewed I'd first seen via a fansub. Yet I still go on to buy the show when it's eventually released on DVD; not out of dedication to the company who released it, nor out of some strange sense of obligation to "pay my dues," but because I want to see it again in crystal clear, big-screened awesomeness. Well, the GOOD ones I want to see again, but the shows I find boring or shitty... Why should I pay for those? I don't like them. And WHO THE FUCK actually bought ANY of Melody of Oblivion or Gunbuster 2?! You people..... Ugh, you make me sick.

Hmmmm, maybe its just the sales of shitty shows like those two that Justin is talking about when he says that they don't even make back the cost of dubbing them. That would explain everything.

Anyway, some shows I've watched fansubbed, then watched when they were broadcast, and even after that I bought on DVD. The problem is that those shows WORTHY of being purchased are becoming far fewer inbetwix. So, even with Justin's suggestion (Japanese companies releasing stuff on their websites soon after their original broadcast), the problem will still hold: People will test out the anime that way, and the Japanese company might get some extra bank for their troubles of putting said show online, but people still won't buy it if it sucks.

In the end, even if every last American anime company dies though, anime still won't go extinct. It was made in Japan for the Japanese long before ADV, Funimation and Viz came along; it will go on long after if they indeed continue to buy crap and try to polish it up for American retail, thusly starving and dying in their own crapulence. So fear not for the big picture, little one. Unless only crap is produced. Then fear... And flush regularly.

There, that was incredibly long, and hyperly rambling, but I hope it answered your question. You had a question, right?

-the Rossman

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Editorial: An Open Letter to the Industry

by Justin Sevakis (reprinted completely without his permission, solely for the sake of having everything needed to understand the question and response on one page), Nov 25 2007

These are good times to be an anime fan. DVD's have never been cheaper. If you're not into buying DVD's or don't have the money, you can download DVD-quality copies over the internet for free and never have to worry about anything bad ever happening to you, ever.

Consequently, these are downright terrible times for anybody in the anime industry. DVD sales are way down, profits are even lower, and a good number of companies are losing money hand-over-fist. Even in Japan, many productions aren't breaking even. People in both the US and Japan are feeling like it's the apocalypse.

The decline of the anime industry and the influence of fansubs on said decline is probably the most talked-about issue in the scene today. The pros have discussed it worriedly amongst themselves for years, but only recently are they speaking out about its damaging effects. Every time they do, and we post about it here on ANN, there's a firestorm of debate about exactly how bad fans should feel about downloading. Occasionally, industry people will pop in to argue for more guilt.

I understand the panic going on. I've seen the numbers myself. They're terrifying. It's not uncommon now for a DVD to not even make back the cost of the dubbing, let alone the license fee. When only a few years ago it was commonplace for shows to get licensed for $70,000 or more per episode, today a show can be licensed for less than half of that. And they're still not profitable.

Clearly, the business model is failing. People realize this, but nobody's actually doing anything about it. Rather than take decisive action, the industry keeps trying the same things it's been doing for years, and when that inevitably doesn't work, the fans who download are blamed. Which makes sense. After all, they're getting the product but not paying for it. Most people would call that stealing.

Now, if this was something new, perhaps I'd have a little more sympathy when the rights holders cry victim. However, the fansub scene is approaching voting age at this point, and digitally transmitted fansubs started circulating about a decade ago. Every year they've gotten more and more widespread (with the historic popularity of Naruto pushing them into complete prominence). And to date, those rights holders have done very little to stop them. There is now an entire generation of anime fans who have never been forced to pay a single dime to get their anime fix.

I do not blame the fans who download with impunity and don't buy a thing. Their attitudes, while damaging, are simply a reflection of the value of anime, which these days, is about $0.00.

That's right. Anime that has been fansubbed is effectively worthless. It's being given away for free. In terms of supply and demand, there is an infinite supply, and therefore the product is worthless regardless of how many people want it – it's like trying to sell buckets of sea water to people on a beach. The only people who would pay for it are either older fans who are attached to the old ways of consuming media, or worse, are doing so out of charity.

That is the state of this industry. And the companies who depend on anime for their livelihood let this happen.


When I was a fansubber back in the VHS days, fansubbers felt lucky if more than a few hundred people saw their fansubs. Copies degraded with every generation, tapes wore out (and never looked great to begin with), and the whole thing was very ephemeral. You had to have connections to get fansubs, or be one of the few that knew how to use the internet to make contact with a distributor. Even if you already had a fansubbed anime when it was licensed, the legal copies were usually far superior in quality.

Digital fansubbing changed everything. Suddenly, an infinite number of very high quality copies could be made. Advances in data compression, computer horsepower and broadband connectivity over the years means that now even the least motivated fan can easily find, in English, whatever new is coming out in Japan merely days after it airs on TV.

The internet, that strange beast that now shapes our modern world, effectively takes distribution out of the hands of the rights holder and puts the consumer in charge. Now, even the smallest release – an airing on a satellite TV channel in a small island country, for example – can be put on the internet and distributed to millions of people, should somebody be motivated enough to upload it. Anime fans, being younger and more technically savvy than most demographics, quickly adopt these new methods. And since the internet is global, so is the fansub market.

That few hundred people from the early days has now become hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. However, fansubs are not like music in that anybody can rip a CD and upload it; they take quite a bit of work (and usually a small group of people) to produce. As those fansub groups have to then upload to everybody else, they should make for an easy legal target.

The domestic distributors, to their credit, have made limited attempts to get shows they've licensed taken offline, but their legal arsenal is limited to a Cease and Desist letter. Many of the more self-serving groups have discovered that these can safely be ignored, and little else will ever happen. Worse, by the time a domestic distributor licenses a show the fansub is likely to have been circulating for months. The damage is already done. With few exceptions, the Japanese side of the industry has not even done this much.

Legal rights, such as copyright to an anime, must be defended if they're to be recognized. Anime has not been defended to any effective degree.
Arthur Smith, president of Gonzo Digital Holdings International, recently compared the downloading of fansubs to breaking into the Apple Store and stealing an iPhone the day before it's released. This is incorrect for several reasons. Debate on physical property versus digital copies aside, if one breaks into an Apple Store, an alarm goes off, the police come, and if you're caught you go to prison. There's also a window and a few locks you'd have to break, and you could injure yourself in the process.

If we're to adjust Smith's statement to be truly factual, downloading a fansub would be something more akin to Apple leaving their entire stock of iPhones on a busy street corner with no locks, no guards, and a big sign that says “iPhone”. If the Apple store manager came in the next day and saw that all of them were stolen, he would file a police report and the police would laugh at him. If he then REFILLED the entire stock, still did not buy any locks or hire any guards (but added a small sign that says “please don't take me”), a couple people might start to feel a little bad, but they're still going to come back for more, and probably bring some friends too. Eventually that Apple store would go out of business, and most people would agree that they deserved to.

The point is this: You can't guilt people into buying something they don't want. If you can't make them want it, you simply don't have a business.


To effectively understand the problem, one must understand two things: why people make fansubs, and why people download fansubs.

People make fansubs for one reason: to share cool new shows they like. (There are other personal reasons, of course, such as improving their Japanese skills and bragging rights.) People watch fansubs because the American releases take years to come out (if they come out at all). Once on DVD, they often have to be bought sight-unseen, which sometimes works for movies on DVD but is an unrealistic commitment for TV series. To younger fans, DVD's are also very expensive.

There is currently no legal way for any of these needs to be met. As the anime industry has not given these customers what they want, these freshly empowered consumers are taking it themselves. Therefore, even if massive, expensive lawsuits were filed against fansubbers, the problem would not stop. Stopping current fansubbers would create a market vacuum. Fans would just find another way (and, as Odex recently discovered, they'd be very angry as well).

Before legal action will be effective, fansubs must be replaced. THERE HAS TO BE A LEGAL, INEXPENSIVE WAY TO WATCH NEW ANIME IN ENGLISH. Not necessarily own, but at least watch.

ADV Films and Funimation know this and have both attempted to fill this void with television networks, streaming and download services. However, neither can offer a show newer than a year old.

There are myriad ways of supporting such a venture. A low subscription price. Advertising. But it has to exist, and it has to be easier to use than bittorrent. It has to show new anime DAYS after it airs in Japan. It has to be available to most of the world. It can't lock out Mac or Linux users. All of these are reasons people will use to justify continued piracy.

Only then, after there is no reason for a fansub to exist other than pure greed, can a few choice lawsuits against a few prominent fansubbers scare the rest of the scene into compliance.

DVD sales would also return to their proper place, as the collectable for fans who really liked the show and want to keep their own copy. However, as packaged media declines, media companies must stay light on their feet so they can quickly adjust to new technologies as they start becoming more commonplace.

This is merely step one of a long road to recovery. But it's not a step that can be avoided.


This is easier said than done. The Japanese entertainment industry is infamous for being a labyrinthine, Brazil-esque muddle of red tape. Only the very highest executives of the producing companies can cut through the red tape, and to date they have shown little intention of doing so.

I can't name specifics here, as I don't wish to betray my confidences, but so far I've been given two primary reasons for this seemingly obvious solution not being put into action already.

The first is fear of change. Simply, the older companies that made their bones in the publishing business are scared to death of the internet and the threats it makes to their existing business. The logical fallacy here is that the internet has already impacted their existing business, and by not taking advantage of new technology, there's no new revenue to compensate for the lost old revenue.

More than anything, the rights holders are terrified that by allowing internet distribution, they might cut into the domestic Japanese market, upon which the entire industry now depends. This would be a valid fear if it weren't for the fact that everybody in Japan can already download HD-quality raw files (illegally) if they want to. If the otaku are still buying DVD's, an English subtitled stream would not make a difference. And even if they did watch (and weren't blocked), wouldn't many of those viewers want to buy the DVD as well?

The other reason is that these companies seem to be under the mistaken impression that American anime fans and their buying practices are nearly identical to Japanese otaku. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. American fans are younger, and are usually not nearly the “collectors” that their Japanese brethren are. Few will pay $55 for a half hour OAV, or even two TV episodes. But more importantly, they're not getting the TV airing that allows them to watch the show in the first place.

To make matters worse, as budgets have fallen the producers have compensated by making more shows that appeal to very specific niche audiences. (Moe, anyone?) While these shows will never be big, they're a short-term solution to keeping the all important Japanese otaku market paying the bills. Their audience in the States, while vocal, is even smaller.


No matter how many appeals the industry makes to fandom, nobody is going to stop downloading. If something is free and available, people are going to take it. That's a fact of life, and no amount of guilt and blame will change that.

The industry is now at a crossroads, where the effects of all this is finally causing significant financial problems before new anime even gets made. The jobs of many talented artists and the countless other people that make up the Japanese animation industry are on the line. The current system is broken beyond repair, and to make money again, the entire way things work needs to be rethought from the ground up.

And those in charge can do it now, or watch their companies and a once thriving, fascinating creative landscape slowly die out.

But it has to be now.

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