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Of Bootlegs and Business

Brian Ruh

Getting anime through what one might euphemistically call 'alternative channels of distribution' has become a standard part of the experience for many an anime fan.

A little while ago I was in Austin, Texas for a week and got to have fun stomping all over town. I took the time to peruse the shelves at the famous local bookstore, BookPeople, catch the latest Harry Potter film at the Alamo Drafthouse, and most importantly, scoured the town for used anime DVDs. Although I love living in Indiana, there just aren't very many places around my town to buy or sell used DVDs. However, there were all sorts of great stores dotting the Austin landscape.

What really surprised me, though, were the bootlegs. Every store I visited in Austin that sold used anime also has anime bootlegs mixed in with the rest of their stock. Some bootlegs were even priced higher then their domestic counterparts, justified by the "import" tags the stores had slapped on the cases. I nearly laughed out loud when I picked up the DVD cases and noticed the telltale signs of a bootleg: shoddy printing quality, sloppy English (one disc I saw boasted "Digital Surrpund"), Japanese audio with Chinese and English subtitles, and all-region capability. I've had no special training in recognizing bootleg DVDs; I can find them because they're generally so easy to spot. In spite of this fact, though, bootlegs are slowly worming their way onto the shelves of legitimate retailers and others who may not know what they are getting into. Case in point, a few weeks before I left for Austin I spoke with someone from my local public library because I noticed that all of their copies of the anime series .hack//SIGN were bootlegs. (It looks like they have since been replaced, or are in the process of being replaced, by the legitimate, licensed versions.)

So why the concern over bootlegs? Frankly, it is because anime is getting to be big business. In February 2004, pop culture industry source reported that the anime market had increased ten to twenty percent in 2003 and that its total retail market is in the ballpark of $550-600 million. (Manga, or Japanese comics, are growing even more quickly.) Although I must admit that anime and manga are growing in popularity because they are the "in" things right now and that a market correction is inevitable, I don't see these forms of popular entertainment as being flashes in the pan. Like it or not, Japanese pop culture is here to stay. And while it's here, the bootleggers think, we might as well make as much money off of it as we can.

This bootlegging problem points to a larger grey area in anime fandom: that of fansubbing and other sub-legal ways fans obtain an anime fix. Getting anime through what one might euphemistically call "alternative channels of distribution" has become a standard part of the experience for many an anime fan. The earliest fans watched and traded tapes of programs that had been recorded from either Japanese TV or from US television stations that catered to an expatriate Japanese audience. Although there has been anime available to US audiences since the broadcast of "Astro Boy" ("Tetsuwan Atomu") on NBC in 1963, the officially available releases have always been a small trickle of Japanese animated output. Thus, it was necessary for fans to resort to other methods to watch these programs. As consumer technology progressed, so did the ability of non-Japanese anime fans to enjoy the medium. Consequently, fansub tapes began to circulate within the fan community.

Fansubs are copies of Japanese programs that have been translated and subtitled by non-professional fans and released for free so that fans who do not speak Japanese are able to enjoy the shows. Fansubbers usually follow a code of ethics — their work is released for free (many fansubs proclaim "Not for sale or rent!") and the distribution of the fansubs are discontinued once the show has been picked up for official release by a US company. Fansubs are, strictly speaking, illegal. However, many companies and copyright holders tend to look the other way until a title has been licensed in the US. With the advent of the Internet (and Bram Cohen's revolutionary BitTorrent program) fansubs these days are just a click away. There is now more "free" anime out there than ever before.

At the same time, there are also many more bootlegs than ever before. It's sometimes difficult to find a legitimate copy of a specific anime DVDs on eBay because so many of the listings are taken up with knock-offs. In response, many anime fans have taken a hard stance against bootlegs. An example of this can be seen in the comments surrounding a recently published profile of Prof. Susan J. Napier (author of Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke, Palgrave 2000) by the UT Office of Public Affairs. Much of the commentary on the article (especially on the forums of websites like Anime News Network) focused more on the accompanying pictures than on the article itself. The photo shoot had taken place at an Austin store that carries anime and other Japanese goods but had prominently shown anime DVDs that bore the logo of Anime Cartoon, a known bootlegging company. After receiving a number of e-mails from fans explaining that the article was showcasing illegally produced DVDs, the UT Public Affairs office removed the offending pictures from their article.

In spite of the fact that many of those in the know do all they can to combat them, bootlegs persist. Why? It all boils down to supply and demand. Sometimes the bootlegs do not have commercial equivalents in the US. The shows and films exist on DVD in Japan but often lack English subtitles and are encoded for region 2 DVD players. (Japan is in region 2 while the US is in region 1; thus Japanese DVDs do not play in most US DVD players, although there are region-free players available as well as ways to hack an existing player to make it play DVDs from all regions.) There is a definite market of which the producers and distributors are not taking advantage. Some Japanese companies are seeing the light and releasing DVDs with English subtitles, but it's not quite enough as there is still the pesky region coding to deal with.

Regardless of how the companies profit, things aren't good for the average worker in the anime industry. A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun stated that an animator working in Japan "might be fortunate to pull in just 50,000 yen a month." That's just around US$460, and you have to keep in mind that most animation companies are located in Tokyo which, according to a recent survey, is the most expensive city in the world in which to live. Although there has been no comprehensive study of the impact bootlegging has had on the anime industry, it certainly isn't encouraging employers to raise salaries.

So why should we care about all of this? Some in the US government have suggested that bootleg entertainment supports terrorism. I don't think I would go quite that far, as such ties have never been proven, but many bootleggers have been linked to organized crime. Even so, I don't think that bootlegs are the scourge that they have sometimes been made out to be. I think they can serve a purpose, although it's a shame to think that bootlegging companies can be more responsive to the needs of the consumer than many legitimate distribution companies. At the same time, it's only right to financially support those who have put so much time and effort into making these series and films.

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