Back in November, I talked about fansubs in The Grey Zone, the illustrious history of the fansubbing community, and the moral dilemma of downloading unlicensed anime and manga, where you are getting something for nothing. (I think we can all agree that downloading licensed entertainment is just plain illegal.) But what about websites where after you buy a membership, you can download as much as you’d like to, guilt-free because, hey, aren’t you buying these files through your membership?
[Quick Disclaimer: I’m including examples and URLs for the sake of completeness. I don’t condone using these websites’ services myself, as I find the whole idea to be very, very illegal and an excellent way to get ripped off online.]
NarutoFan Manga PLUS offers “unlimited access, 24 hours a day, to hundreds of manga series and never having to pay additional bandwidth costs,” all for eight dollars a month. Of course, there is a catch: only four file downloads at once from one server. Taking a quick look at the titles, it’s a nice mix of unlicensed, fansubbed and licensed top-level manga, such as Death Note, Prince of Tennis, and only naturally, Naruto.
Anime Crave describes itself an online anime entertainment website, with discussion forums, avatars, mp3s (another legal issue itself...), wallpapers and an image gallery section. It also offers anime episode, movie and OVA downloads. If you upgrade to their Anime Crave Live membership plan for five dollars a month, you get greater access and perks such as a chat room and control panel... and higher quality anime to download, anime of which all is licensed. How do they explain this blatant piracy and how they don’t need permission from US licensing companies to offer these titles as downloads? “We own the DVDs.”
Uhuh. I don’t think that excuse works with regular movie piracy either. You’re just begging for distributors to sic lawyers on you, as well as all of your “members” who are in possession of illegal content. Now, we haven’t seen evidence yet that anime and manga industry is as hardcore as the MPAA at stopping online piracy (the bootleg industry is still lively, despite crackdowns at conventions and fans taking action themselves against local stores), because frankly, the industry isn’t that large and doesn’t have the money or government connections to make this an issue.
National Anime at least has the intelligence to call their five dollar per month premium media subscription (“900+ anime series and OVAs! Fast and unlimited downloads from a US server!”) a “donation” for site maintenance and upkeep. Now, I have nothing against websites asking for donations for server bandwidth and such, but I do take issue when a website is selling content that they do not own.
Let’s not ignore the position that these pay-per-view websites put fansubbers into, either. Many of these website legitimize themselves by offering unlicensed content--or rather, fansubbed and scanslated content. By all rights, fansub groups should be asking for their cut from these people selling the products of their hard work. But fansubbing is based on the concept of nobody making any money off of the product / “anime and manga for the fans, by the fans.” If they accept even a quarter from websites for the use of their fansub and scanslation, then they’ve open the door wide to litigation (hence why many bittorrent and fansub pages use the donation format to raise funds to cover server costs): they’ve made an unlicensed commercial product. At the same time, here are these website owners, making money off of content that is available for free, and turning fansub groups into unpaid laborers for the website. Happily, many fansubs include warnings that you were fooled if you paid money for this.
Additionally, there’s the issue of online commerce. Basically, would you trust your bank account and credit card information with people that provide little contact information aside from the actual website? Paypal and most credit cards will contest charges at least if your membership extends after the online life of the website and media-hosting server, but it is potentially creating a hassle for yourself. It’s the problem of giving money to people and businesses that you don’t really know.
My final thoughts are these. Anime and manga are expensive hobbies. Much like comic books, your collection soon becomes an investment in entertainment. The cost has gone down, while the selection of titles has gone up over the past few years. There is no excuse to play the “poor college student/high school student” card, or the “no anime/manga in stores around here” joker. You can rent online and in most video stores, national franchises and Mom and Pop stores. You can borrow manga at the library. You can buy manga at national bookstores and anime at Walmart and Best Buy, not to talk about online stores such as Amazon and Buy.com. These methods give you access to legitimate copies of licensed titles. If you’re looking for unlicensed material, use bittorrents and direct downloads from fansub groups. Honor the code of fansubbers, who keep it free and made by fans for fans. Don’t support piracy, or fans looking to make a profit off of your naivety and/or greedy need to have the next episode or the next chapter now. It’s people like these who may ruin the innocent file-sharing of the otaku community, who are moving from the fringes of Usenet to mainstream media.