Grump Alert – Bootlegs, Ethics and Navigating the Gray Zone

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Real life friend, fellow blogger and erstwhile Grump Factory contributor, Film Walrus, has posted a lengthy article on his own thoughts concerning the potential ethics of downloading or obtaining movies through other potentially illegal means.

Oh god, if bootlegging/piracy is a tumor on the back of live-action film, it’s full-blown terminal cancer for anime. Nowhere have I seen such widespread senses of entitlement and just-plain apathy for copyright than I have in the so-called “anime fan” community.

Anime has problems getting to America in a timely fashion. Not only do we usually have to wait for the Japanese DVD release to come out, but there’s often a lengthy delay due to an extensive dubbing process, licensing issues or even just a perceived lack of interest making a particular property not a high priority to be licensed. There’s PILES of classic Japanese animation out there that is unlicensed, and likely won’t EVER be licensed because anime more than a few years old just doesn’t sell, because the American market is very, very fad-centric. The same could be said of the Japanese market, but at least titles like Galaxy Express 999 and Astro Boy carry some cultural weight that they lack in the States.

Anime has had a long bootlegging history in America. In fact, it’s largely responsible for it becoming as popular (relatively speaking) as it is today. Back in the 80s and 90s, practically the ONLY way to have access to Japanese animation, outside of bowdlerized home video adaptations of Macross or Nausicaa, was to have it fan-subtitled and distributed from fan to fan on crappy 4th generation VHS copies. Some major anime licensing companies today actually formed out of fansubbing circles that decided they wanted to go legit. Fansubs can be credited for starting a grassroots movement for anime interest in America and serving as an indicator of fan interest for shows for companies to license, but I would argue that nowadays, they have no reason to exist. While there are some fansubbing circles out there that do indeed withdraw their fansubs once a property is released, there’s plenty of groups out there that don’t give a damn. Likewise, anime “fans” that continue to watch fansubs to the point of ignoring legitimate releases likely outnumber those who support them.

American anime licensing companies do themselves no favors, either, although one can hardly blame them for not having the resources to pursue and prosecute fansubbers and their audience. In a particularly blatant example, Bandai Entertainment explicitly released a statement warning people NOT to fansub the movie Solid State Society with the threat of facing legal action, but when fansubs started popping up, I alerted the company and they didn’t do anything but twiddle their thumbs.

With the advent of streaming anime on sites like FUNimation, Crunchyroll and Hulu, fansubs have really sort of lost their excuse. Yet they continue to thrive, especially to the detriment of the legal alternatives. Fans have been complaining for YEARS about wanting new anime simultaneously broadcast in America the same time it premiered in Japan. FUNimation finally got permission to try to do so with a wildly popular series, only to have the episode copied from their (admittedly insecure) servers before the Japanese air date! This caused the entire enterprise to come to a screeching halt and even the entirety of FUNimation’s streaming site was yanked for weeks while they beefed up security. It’s absolutely insane the amount of selfishness that goes on in the anime community.

That being said, I do find myself downloading fansubs of anime series and movies that are unlicensed and likely to stay that way. The vast majority of Japanese anime releases contain no English subtitles, so a region-free player still wouldn’t solve that problem. Plus there’s the problem of the American anime market nearing the bottom of a crash for the past several years and not having the money to license many new series from Japan’s licensors who by and large still believe that they can charge the same inflated prices they were from years ago.

A particularly bad release was last year’s Moribito, which started an Adult Swim run for 10 episodes, then repeated and eventually got pulled from the schedule. Apparently the original American licensee went belly-up and the dub production was interrupted and carried over to another company. It’s FINALLY going to start back up this summer… a year after its initial debut. And several years since the Japanese release. How many fans gave up and just watched fansubs inbetween that time?

If I DO download something that’s unlicensed (but very likely to GET licensed) I try not to watch the whole series so that I have incentive to buy the episodes as they get a legitimate release.

I did download one emulated ROM of a game because it was one that was extremely rare and likely to never be chanced upon in real life: Snatcher. And to be fair, I hardly played it.

I don’t really resort to downloading mainstream Hollywood movies or TV shows except in the event that I missed the broadcast of one and for some reason my DVR didn’t pick it up (happened a few times with Battlestar Galactica).

If we’re talking about downloading MUSIC… man… I don’t even really have a legitimate rationale for doing that, but I’m trying to become better and either buy legit physical copies or download MP3s from an online store. Some stuff is just out of print and nowhere to be found, though.

So, where do you stand on these sorts of issues? Be sure to let us know either in the comments below or in Film Walrus’ original article!

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