Ask John: What Are Fansubs?
My daughter and I want to know, “What’s a fansub?” We’ve heard a lot about them; we just don’t know what they are.
A “fansub” is a subtitled translation of an anime episode or movie created by amateur fans in an effort to promote awareness of anime. Private fans acquire a copy of an anime, translate the spoken Japanese dialogue, add subtitles to the show with their home computer, then give away free copies of the newly translated anime to anyone who requests a copy. The goal of fansubbing is to stimulate awareness of anime and interest in the international distribution of anime. However, despite their lofty intentions, fansubs are illegal. Public distribution of any copyrighted material, regardless of its national origin, without authorization from the official copyright owner is a violation of international copyright law. If fansubbing was merely a form of video piracy, fansubs themselves probably wouldn’t be as controversial and as long lived as they are.
The first known anime fansub was a fan translated Lupin III episode that came to light in 1986. The first known fansub to get significant distribution within America’s fan community was a translation of the first two Ranma 1/2 television episodes, produced by the Ranma Project in 1989. (The first professionally subtitled anime released in America appeared a year later with the commercial release of Gunbuster and Dangaio in January 1990.) Early fansubbers translated and distributed anime among English speaking fans as a way of educating fans about particular series, and Japanese animation in general. Early fansubs were also created in hopes of encouraging eventual, officially licensed American commercial releases. The “fansub ethics” developed by early fan translators insisted that underground translation and distribution of any anime should stop as soon as the title was officially licensed. After all, if a fansubbed title was licensed for official release, the fansub had done its job.
In 2000, roughly coinciding with the explosion of American interest in anime, fansubs went digital. The 1999 introduction of the DivX digital video compression technology and the increasing prevalence of internet file sharing networks allowed tech savvy anime fans to quickly and easily create and share fansubs in computer video formats. “Digisubs” as they came to be known, quickly made arduously created VHS fansubs obsolete. Shows including Megami Kouhosei and Vandread were among the first digisubs.
As the American anime industry and fan community rapidly blossomed from 2000 onward, the significance of fansubs increased in some respects, and decreased in others. The number of fansubs available exploded because technology made fan translating tremendously faster and easier. Demand for anime also increased exponentially as increasing numbers of American because aware of anime. At the same time, an increasing number of critics argued that the practice of fansubbing had outlived its usefulness. With anime now a multi-million dollar business in America, there was no longer a need for underground distribution to boost demand for anime.
Despite being undeniably illegal, the validity of fansubs is highly debatable. Fansubs are a method of obtaining illicit access to art without properly compensating the artists. But supporters of fansubbing justify their illegal activity with the rationale that fansubbing benefits the anime community more than it does harm. Fansubs generate interest in anime and particular anime titles, which results in heightened sales that benefit Japanese animators and artists. Anime series including Hellsing, Love Hina, Naruto and Full Metal Alchemist have had massively successful debuts in America because fansubs had already created massive anticipation for these shows. On the other hand, countless anime series released in America that have not had advance word-of-mouth promotion created by fansubbing have been ignored in the American market. Native Japanese fans can easily sample anime via television broadcast, but American fans don’t have that opportunity because so few anime series are broadcast on American television. Importing official Japanese home video releases isn’t a viable alternative because Japanese home video releases don’t have English translations and Japanese DVDs aren’t compatible with American DVD players.
The anime industry has largely turned a blind eye to fansubs because of a recognition that fansubs are the most effective type of advertising available. In 1997 Japan’s AIC Studio emphasized on its website that unlicensed online distribution of anime is illegal, but made no other effort to stop fansubbing. In 2001 Gonzo Studios contacted several American digisub distributors to request that they stop illegally distributing Vandread. In December 2004 Japanese distributor Media Factory contacted several fansub creators and distributors requesting that illegal translation and distribution of their properties cease. Likewise, American anime distributors have always had a rocky relationship with fansubs, legitimately claiming that fansubs undermine legitimate commercial sales. But neither Japan’s nor America’s anime industry has ever made a determined, prolonged effort to abolish fansubbing.
The existance of fansubs is undeniably partially motivated by selfish greed. Fans outside Japan want access to anime- especially the trendiest, newest titles that Japanese fans are watching. But fansubbing isn’t entirely motivated by greed. American fansubbing is motivated by a desire to enjoy anime that isn’t available to Americans by any other means. Ironically, while fansubbing is a imposition on creator rights, the goal of fansubbing is to encourage respect and support for Japanese artists. The fact that shows which are most popular in the fansubbing community also become the best selling shows in America seems to be evidence that fansubs do benefit both anime creators and fans.
Article revised September 23, 2005
The following is the original article, published December 27th, 2001
A “fansub” is a subtitled version of an anime show produced by private, amateur anime fans on a non-profit basis. Individual anime fans buy an import anime tape, laser disc or DVD, or use an episode recorded off Japanese television, and translate the dialogue and add subtitles to the show on their home computer. Copies of this subtitled version are then given away for free or provided to anyone that asks for a copy, so long as the person asking pays the cost of the blank tape and postage. This is technically illegal since it is public distribution of copyrighted material without permission or payment of proper royalties to the copyright owner; however, both Japanese and American companies generally overlook fansubs because, in accordance with established “fansub ethics,” fansubs are entirely non-profit and only shows and series that have not been licensed for American distribution are to be fan subtitled and dispersed.
The purpose of fansubs is to allow American fans to experience new anime and use this experience to petition for particular shows to be licensed for American release. The goal of fansubs is to increase awareness of anime and Japanese culture. Fansubs exist to allow English speaking anime fans an opportunity to watch and enjoy translated anime that they would not otherwise have access to. Series including Fushigi Yuugi and Rurouni Kenshin were licensed for official American release in part because they were so popular in the fansub community.
Fansubs have gotten a bad reputation not because they are technically illegal distribution of copyrighted material, but because too many unscrupulous people have taken advantage of the generosity of the fansubbing community and anime fandom. Too many people have been known to sell fansubs for big profit, and too many ignorant or selfish people have continued to translate and distribute fansubs of titles that have been licensed or even already legally released in English. The purpose of fansubs is to share import anime with other anime fans, not to substitute for or undermine the success of legitimate, legal, licensed anime translations. Unfortunately, bootlegging and fansubbing for profit have become synonymous with the philanthropic goal of non-profit fansubs in the minds of many observers.
Fansubs of licensed titles should never be shared or distributed for any reason. Fansubs should never be sold, rented or distributed for profit. And fansubs should be replaced with legitimate, official copies if & when such become available. To ignore these basic tenets is to contradict the very definition of “fansub.” With these guidelines in mind, you can find “digital” fansubs in PC video formats through IRC or other internet methods.