The ancient hobby of fansubbing has been present in the US since the early days of the VCR, when fans could awkwardly add in blocky yellow and white text to scratchy nth generation tapes. Back then, it wasn’t much of a concern for Japanese companies and American distributors, as there wasn’t much of an English audience (or so they believed) for anime unedited for foreign audiences, and these fansubs weren’t making any money off of it at all; they were barely breaking even at selling tapes for five to ten bucks, plus shipping. There is also the fact that many of these older US distributors were founded by fans for fans; they were enjoying the fruits of fansubs alongside the fans. Additionally, this gave fan-favorite titles such as Gundam a built-in audience.
Fansubs only started to drift into the public consciousness with the rise of the Internet and burnable CDs in the 90s. The acquisition of fansubs suddenly turned from a mail order/newsgroup business where you had to know the community and the e-address in order to get a VHS copy (and remember to make sure that it was of good quality) in a few months, to the point where anyone could search on Altavista or Yahoo for a fansubber’s website, place an order via email (no free checkout software yet), and wait a few weeks (if that) for your CD. The quality wasn’t as good as the TV, but people who wanted to know what happened to Sailor Moon once the DiC episodes ran out, and who was this Ranma guy/girl were willing to pay. I’m sure some people felt slightly guilty, but the majority really didn’t care. You couldn’t find this anywhere else, and we really wanted it. More and more teams of fansubbers were only happy to provide, subtitling popular shows, as well as shows that would certainly never appear on American TVs. Some fansubbers felt that this was wrong to change for something that was pretty much a hobby and a way to practice their Japanese and computer tech skills, but justified it by charging only enough to cover the cost of the CD and shipping through media mail. You have to remember that high-speed Internet was still a dream for most of the otaku community, as well as software like Go!zilla to resume downloads after you were bumped off or logged off of the dial-up Internet. It was just easier to get a CD in the mail and watch the videos off of it. Distributors were aware of the fansubbers, but they still really didn’t do anything to stop them, except occasionally warning larger fansub groups not to touch licensed anime.
The conditions were perfect when the fansub explosion happened. High-speed Internet became affordable for homeowners and available on nearly every college campus in Canada and the US. File sharing was the latest buzzword and online activity, with the popularity of ICQ and AIM, and this led to the rampant file sharing of anime, especially among friends who wanted to pass along “this freaky cartoon” that they received from someone else. With the advent of Napster and KaZaa, and their P2P siblings, anime (especially hentai) leaked out onto the Internet and made it very easy for anyone to download recent releases in Japan, as well as hard-to-find classics such as Akira.
With people sharing files for free and faster connections, the market for paid fansubs dwindled out. However, this was mostly due to US distributors and Japanese companies finally cracking down on fansubs. “Fansubs are illegal. Fansubbers don’t have the legal authority to alter Japanese content. Or American content, for that matter.” The fansubbers’ reply is the basic rule that applies among fansubs even today: “We’re not making any money from this, so it’s not a commercial venture. When it becomes licensed in the US, we’ll stop distribution. We’ll even tell our viewers to stop distribution on P2P.”
Of course, very few of their viewers at that time obeyed the licensing rule, and fansubs were available for months and years after the US license was announced. Otaku had very little fear of big companies and far-away Japanese lawyers. Metallica and the RIAA had yet to appear in the newspaper.
After the fall of Napster and the rise of RIAA-inspired downloading fear, people became more cautious of their file sharing, preferring one-on-one or group sharing instead of leaving it open for anyone to access. Virtual hosting and hub sharing (DirectConnect) became the preferred method of anime acquisition, as large DivX files (anime on the computer screen now at TV quality, if not better) could be moved quickly, and the only real world connection was a username. Then came BitTorrent.
BitTorrent opened the gate for file sharing again. Otaku became fearless again, as the lack of a central host meant that no single individual was responsible for distribution. This mob mentality still rules the bandwidth. The most timid fansub groups could operate with minimal online presence, existing only as a link to a constantly seeding torrent file.
Happily, people are taking the “don’t download and share licensed anime” rule to heart. It’s darn hard to find licensed anime these days without working the back alleys of the Web. Most fansubs work off of the BitTorrent system of sharing, and fansubbers take down their master seed files almost immediately, alongside popular BitTorrent sites such as AnimeSuki and Boxtorrents.
Where do we stand now? Officially, all Japanese and US distributors are against fansubs. You’re not supporting the industry when you download, thus leading to fewer titles being licensed. They’re losing money on potential sales. While these arguments do hold some water, I believe that fansubs have a place in the community. They are our first interaction with a series, and how we judge it. This is how fans test out a series before investing their money, and why shouldn’t we? Anime is an expensive hobby. We should only buy series that are worth our money and our time.
Fansubs also allow access to anime that won’t be licensed outside of Japan. Period. I don’t expect to see The Snow Queen on broadcast TV or straight-to-video, although it’s an excellent children’s series. On the other hand, we have series being licensed that no one really ever expected to see, such as the wacky variety show Vermilion Pleasure Night.
I do believe in a third choice as well: order a series straight from Japan if you really enjoy it or if you’re a fan of the series and just can’t wait for a US release. We live in a world where non-regional DVD players and mod programs are widely available if you look for them. Sure, the anime isn’t licensed, but that isn’t a right to download every episode, burn it on a DVD and watch it on the big-screen TV. Support excellent anime by sending some dollars towards the Japanese distributor.
I won’t get into bootlegs here, as that’s something entirely different. That is nothing but businessmen looking for a quick buck from the desperate and the ignorant. I won’t tackle manga scanslations either, as those evolved somewhat differently from anime fansubs, maintaining much of the innocence in the dark of Japanese-reading fans sharing good manga with English fans that anime had in its VCR days.