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Dark Energy: What Fansubs Reveal about the Copyright Wars

From: Mechademia
Volume 5, 2010
pp. 193-208

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Can fans who break the law through online piracy ultimately help legitimate markets? Or, to put it another way, is there a market-oriented analog to civil disobedience such that breaking the law should viewed as an ethical means to improve the responsiveness of cultural industries? For most people in the industry, any unauthorized sharing of copyrighted material is piracy pure and simple. It constitutes stealing the fruits of other people's labor. For others, however, the worlds of media sharing, which include not only fansubs but scanlations, anime music videos, dōjinshi (fanzines), slash fiction, and more, all evoke complex debates about what's proper and what's property. Focusing on the example of fansubs, I argue that a useful way to reframe the debates about copyright and digital technology is to focus on the energy that drives the circulation of media and the devotion of fans, something I propose calling "dark energy." From a dark energy perspective, we can see some of the limitations of focusing on property and law as a guide to progress, and perceive instead the ways value depends on community as much as on markets. Fansubs offer an arena to explore these issues, as well as broader questions of the shape of capitalism, media, and fandom in a digital age.

Fansubbing is the practice whereby groups of overseas fans of Japanese animated films and TV shows ("anime"), digitize, translate, add subtitles to, and make available online unauthorized copies of TV series and films. Fansubbers view their work as contributing to anime culture by providing timely, high-quality translations of Japanese releases for free to fellow fans. The anime fans who participate in this world, either by making, downloading, or watching fansubs, widely acknowledge that the practice breaks copyright law. Nevertheless, many of these fans view sharing media files online as justified, and indeed feel that doing so can support anime and possibly businesses as well, provided certain ethical principles are maintained. Not everyone agrees, even among the fans, and the ferocity of the debate highlights the contours of an emerging transnational politics at the intersection of Japan's content industries and online fandom.

A conflict in 2003 between groups of anime fans is representative of some aspects of the debate as a whole. On one side, an editorial writer for the Web site Anime News Network (ANN) had this to say about the fansub group Anime Junkies:

For the most part, ethical fansubbers have long adhered to the rule that you do not distribute a title that has a North American licensor. But most isn't all. There are some fansubbers that give the activity a very bad name. One of those groups is Anime Junkies.

The next day a person who described himself as Anime Junkies' Webmaster posted the following response, challenging the notion that the group had acted unethically.

We are an open group and we stand by our actions. … We leave it to the general populace to decide what they feel is right and wrong. Remember, the law is not our moral guide. The day people begin to stop living by their ethics is the day our society loses its humanity.

One of the interesting features of this dispute is that neither side views the law as the measure of ethics. Rather, principles are developed by a citizenry composed of a transnational community of fans.

Fansubbing can help us grapple with some of the central concerns of media anthropology: "how media enable or challenge the workings of power and the potential of activism; the enforcement of inequality and the sources of imagination; and the impact of technologies on the production of individual and collective identities." Might some kinds of piracy be regarded as activism that reduces inequality and provokes the imagination through new uses of technology and new forms of collectivities? The answer, I will argue, depends on analyzing a core contradiction in the politics of fansubbing: fansubbing is piracy that defers to market principles. In other words, what makes fansubbing interesting is that, although fans feel little compunction about breaking copyright law, they (or for some readers perhaps, we) tend to maintain a deference to ideas of promoting markets, at...