More Thoughts on Free Online Manga Distribution

Following up on my post pondering what users get from scanlation sites and many of the issues surrounding posting and reading free manga online, there have been some thought-provoking statements around the web in the last couple of days.

Simon Jones makes a jaded argument that says that publishers shouldn’t pay attention to getting digital rights from authors because the success stories in the online space started by ignoring the laws around such things. (I do believe this is an excellent example of exaggeration to the extreme to make a point.)

If you want to “publish” scanlations, do it. Start an aggregation site. No one’s going to sue you. Japanese companies will invest in you. Stay out of print, because that, for some unfathomable reason, is still covered by copyright law.

David Welsh takes the more positive view of asking readers to give examples of points that might convince creators to do more with digital distribution.

What argument (preferably diplomatic) would you make to a manga-ka to convince them of the benefits of more timely, less immediately profitable, digital delivery of their work? The obvious one is that it’s already happening without their participation or consent, and they might as well control it to whatever degree possible, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject.

But the big, bazooka-sized post is by Jake Forbes, who writes an open letter with sections for just about everyone. In his opinion, Japanese publishers ought to be thinking about simultaneous translation and providing lots more material online

Transitioning from print-only to a hybrid print and digital world isn’t easy, and there’s going to be some hiccups and belt-tightening along the way. Either empower your licensors as partners or bring localization management in-house as a serious endeavor.

But the real tough news is aimed at American manga publishers, who are quickly reaching a point where they need to justify their existence.

Why do we need you? Seriously. There’s not a lot of sympathy for the industry, because frankly, you guys aren’t doing much to earn it. … To stay up-to-date with just the biggest hits, the cost is astronomical: Naruto: $400; Fruits Basket: $250; Vampire Knight: $90; Negima: $300. No wonder more people are reading your books on the bookstore floors than buying them—your value sucks. …

[A]re your editions that much better than what the free (albeit, unauthorized) scanlations offer? Sometimes, sure, but you hardly make quality a selling point. You are supposed to be the PROS, right? And yet you treat your unique creative staff (translators, adaptors, production artists) as interchangeable cogs in the machine.

Fans have their own dressing-down coming as well:

I do think something has changed in fandom over the past 10 years. It happened slowly and without malice, but this change has turned fandom’s relationship with the industry from a symbiotic one to a harmful, parasitic one. … What changed was fandom’s concept of ownership, and the product itself is only part of that equation. … the joy of being a part of a subculture is that we can decide for ourselves what’s cool and what’s crap. …

But here’s the thing—freedom to discuss copyrighted works is not the same thing as freedom to access them. Today’s fandom, empowered by torrents and scanlations and a glut of legit licensed content, takes unfettered access for granted. We think that we’re entitled to watch and read it all.

I don’t know that I agree with him on that point. I’m sure there are toxic fans out there, but the reasonable ones I know of don’t feel entitled. They’re not owners, they’re just consumers. Frankly, I’m not sure where he’s going at the end here, although I share his hope that there will be more legal alternatives in the future. And I strongly support his call for more young artists to try making their own stories.


  1. What aspect do you feel I am exaggerating? The only exaggeration is the amount of worth Google saw in Youtube. Those three guys that started Youtube are now worth billions combined. Sites that pirate manga are operating more or less unfettered. Crunchyroll, which built its audience with fansubs, is now seeing investment from Japanese companies. That is reality.

    I suppose you could say that my hypothetical publisher response, which is to not pay for digital content, is an exaggeration. But logically, why would anyone become an official licensee for digital content, when they could do just as much and earn more money by not licensing?

  2. Oops, typo. Those guys are worth 1.5 billion.

  3. Yes, I was referring to your hypothetical response. I think publishers have to be official licensees because they already have a business relationship with those you propose they exploit. If they didn’t, it would be easier for them to act without concern.

    Why do I keep flashing back to DC calling the Watchmen watches they sold “promotional” so they wouldn’t owe Alan Moore his cut?

  4. I don’t know that I agree with him on that point. I’m sure there are toxic fans out there, but the reasonable ones I know of don’t feel entitled. They’re not owners, they’re just consumers.

    Take a step back and make sure that he’s talking about the ones you’ve just labelled the “reasonable” ones. Chances are that’s not the group he means.

    I’m not an observer of the “manga fan” subculture but I have to say – for a variety of subcultures I have been watching over the years his criticism re: “things we as fans deserve because we’re fans” is spot on. Many fans these days in all kinds of subcultures expect to be able to instantly access whatever their personal fan obsession is at the price they want to pay for it. If they can’t immediately get ahold of it for the price they think it’s worth, then that “justifies” for them torrenting it instead.

    There are a lot of examples: Doctor Who fans in the US who don’t want to have to wait for new episodes to be broadcast in the States, superhero comics fans who want to read the books on their laptops and feel that because the companies don’t provide the books that way they’re completely justified in downloading them via torrent, role-playing game fans who feel that a company should charge what they want them to charge for their digital downloads vs. print and so justify torrenting them when the company is “overcharging” and so on. Don’t even start with the video game fans who think that by downloading a video game they’re somehow “protesting” DRM technology used on that game.

    There’s a lot of ugly, destructive fan entitlement out there right now (some of it worse than others). The technology makes it so easy to do things that the justifications are really easy to make. I’d frankly be shocked if it hasn’t infested the manga fandom as much as it has others.

  5. Very true, but I’m not convinced that that’s the majority of any given fan group. And I object to all fans being lumped in that bucket.

  6. >I think publishers have to be official licensees because they already have a business relationship with those you propose they exploit. If they didn’t, it would be easier for them to act without concern.

    Right, and that means for someone looking to enter the business with low capital, there is little incentive to establish a business relationship in the first place. Unless there is reasonable copyright enforcement. Which you pointed out correctly is inconsequential on the internet.

    The point I’m hoping to get across, is that the issue of digital rights that those francophone comic creators are raising, is second fiddle to the overall problem of copyright enforcement on the internet. Without solving that first (or concurrently), in what way could anyone guarantee a profit for creators?

  7. I’m very concerned about any discussion that uses the phrase “copyright enforcement”, because most of the overly restrictive approaches are based on fallacies, and big copyright owners seem to be aiming at having the government destroy the internet to protect their existing business models. Given that the internet is global, does this then become a matter for the UN?

  8. >Given that the internet is global, does this then become a matter for the UN?


    (As in, this is something that needs to be addressed internationally.)

    Going off on a slight tangent now, beyond the relatively petty issues of manga publishing… most people don’t appreciate how important the concept of IP has become for countries like the US and Japan. We’ve been losing manufacturing capabilities for the past quarter of a century, shipping those jobs overseas. Most of us view this globalization with contempt, yet this has actually worked out to be very *good* for us. We provide ideas, while other countries provide labor. And in our service-based economy, those Nike shoes that cost 50 cents to make, pay the salaries of the shoe salesman, the manager, the cleaning crew at the mall… all the way up to the Nike executives. But this is only possible with IP protections, enforced internationally through treatises and backed by threat of embargoes. Those manufacturing countries already have the expertise to make comparable knock-off products, and piracy does occur, but as long as physical product is involved, we have a way of stopping them. But that’s much tougher to do with online products… entertainment, software, what have you. Yet, our dependence on virtual goods is increasing. It will eventually get to the point where intellectual property becomes so important to our economy, that we will be willing to go to war over it. All major conflicts are driven by economic motives. Peace is the incentive for fair trade. So yes, this matter is a high priority for the international community.

    But back to our far less dramatic manga discussion…

    When I say copyright enforcement, I don’t necessarily mean only in a legal sense, although that is a very important component. DRM is obviously another aspect. And certain software already do this quite well (i.e. Windows). Publishers need that kind of protection (which doesn’t have to be 100%, just good enough so that most people will buy legit products) and an environment that allows fair competition. This is why everyone’s excited about the iPad, even if the hardware itself is less than revolutionary.

  9. Johanna, I think part of it might be that as far as I can tell you don’t go to forums like ANN (where discussion on this issue is contstant, despite ANN taking an anti-piracy stance themselves) or other large enmasse, tween populated sites where it’s even worse. If you haven’t encountered these kinds of fans, you are very, very lucky [and frankly, a little naive]. They tend to makes a person crabby. Jake’s article is very spot on on this sort of fan.

    Also, the UN’s totally on that, or at least have a division that should be

  10. Paploo, you’re right, I don’t go to places like that any more. I got my fill of crazy fan behavior when I moderated the DC comics message boards several years ago. Life’s too short to put up with them.

    Simon, I love your comments. But what do you think about fashion, which seems to run just fine as a creative industry with no IP protections?

  11. Imagine those DC message boards, but mostly 14 year old kids (the immature kind, not the sensible kind) or people who might as well be 14 year old kids based off their vocabulary and maturity levels, and most of them with massive entitlement issues. Now imagine a forum 10x the size of DC’s boards because it’s all free. Seriously, this stuff makes superhero fandom 10 years ago look like a breeze, and stuff like the H.E.A.T Hal Jordan fans look comfortably sane.

    Johanna, in terms of fashion, I think it’s all about brands, and there most definitely is a lot of IP protections when it comes to the brands- just look at Gucci’s recent court case with Google about counterfit merchandise advertised on their sites. Their brands are the equivalent comics content. Knockoffs of designs are the equivalent of crappy comics jumping onto fads like many Turtles knockoffs of the 80’s- kind of okay, while Turtles were the REAL thing.

    So, I think scanlations of Naruto are moreso like fake Gucci bags with Gucci logos on them- a more direct thread to IP and industry economics.

  12. Though now that I think about it, that may of been a bit harsh, though still rooted in truth basically. But yeah, wiser to avoid forums nowadays due to a general shift to that sort of behaviour [also something cropping up in superhero fandom moreso]

  13. Just to add a few more things to Paploo’s excellent view on fashion…

    Fashion designs are not given the same kind of protections as pictures or words, because they are not the same. Design is not copyright-able. And clothes have utilitarian function, while in purely creative media, the expression itself is intrinsic to its value.

    That said, the fashion industry absolutely benefits from intellectual property protection in the form of trademark protection for brands (as Paploo explained above), and patent protection for unique designs that solve a problem (bras that give wearers a “lift”), or technological advances (fabric that won’t get wet or stretch).

    Fashion is an industry that runs fine *because* of IP protections.

  14. I should have been clearer about what I was referring to — I was thinking of the lack of design protection, not trademark issues. Fashion houses are pressing for the ability to copyright designs because they’re tired of having to innovate and compete. I think that’s a horrible idea.

    And Paploo, thanks so much for bringing back my HEAT nightmares. :)

  15. Sorry about bring back your horrors ^_^ It’s kind of the same crazy fan delusion as H.E.A.T. was, with the added disturbing bonus of having an actual negative financial/legal affect on creators rights.

  16. Johanna,
    From my very limited understanding of the fashion IP issue, it’s not so much the having to innovate and compete season-to-season that’s the hot-button issue, as it’s the H&Ms and the Chinese counterfeiters who are copying and rushing to market designs before the original designers can even get their product to market. I also remember watching a doc that explained how in China, the counterfeit market is pretty transparent — no one thinks they’re getting the real deal — and that it helps create demand for the real-deal, with women whose incomes typically wouldn’t support buying chanel end up buying a single true luxury item. Come to think of it, it’s a lot liek the justifications for scanslations, and not too far off from the way that free-to-play virtual worlds work.

  17. I have to admit that if find the attitude of instant gratification to be vile and infantile. And manga fans aren’t the only one suffering from it. It’s the fuel behind the day trading phenomena.

    Some days I get so feed up with the petty justifications that I wish Japanese publishers would simply suspend all licenses and refuse to let manga leave the shores of Japan. They could easily hire a few hackers to take down the piracy sites and anyone registered with those sites. Then once manga is no longer accessible in the US manga fans will finally realize that entertainment is a privilege and not a right.

    I know that’s extreme and it would be throwing out the baby with the bath water. However, I wonder if that’s what it would take for people to finally wake up and grow up.

    To me the heart of matter is a culture that rewards infantile attitudes. I doubt American culture is going to change anytime soon, so I don’t know what the solution is.

  18. Ed, the hackers idea is a hilarious one- I wonder if companies would be legally allowed to do that? Taking out MangaOne and MangaFox overnight would be a rude awakening for many fans.

  19. I just remembered another angle: occasionally I’ve seen someone uploading unofficial translations of the words in the comics but without the pictures.

    This seems to be on the middle ground between “if you don’t feel like going to a bookstore or library then rip it off for free!!! [as if the artists don’t deserve to be paid for their work]” and “when there’s no English license every download of a scanlation from Japanese to English still replaces a sale of the Japanese edition!!! [as if readers buy books they can’t read for their leisure reading]”

    If you just buy the book then you don’t get the whole story (and you wasted your money) because you can’t read the words. If you just download the text then you don’t get the whole story because the pictures aren’t included. If you do both then you get the whole story and neither rip off the artists nor waste your money. For example:

    Whoever wrote the Comics Influx FAQ Says:

    “…I thought comics had pictures – where are the pictures?”

    “The pictures are in the books. We don’t allow uploading of images to avoid any copyright infringements. In the future we hope to allow the uploading of limited sample panels.”

    “isn’t this just infringement of the author’s copyright?”

    “No, we don’t believe so. The words from a comic are, actually, pretty much useless without the pictures – they are a long way from even being a script. So Comix Influx is only really useful to people who have a copy of the comic of which they are reading the translation.

    “So we expect Comix Influx to make international comics available to a wider audience and encourage people to buy more of them…”

    Ed Sizemore Says:

    “Some days I get so feed up with the petty justifications that I wish Japanese publishers would simply suspend all licenses and refuse to let manga leave the shores of Japan. They could easily hire a few hackers to take down the piracy sites and anyone registered with those sites. Then once manga is no longer accessible in the US manga fans will finally realize that entertainment is a privilege and not a right…”

    Interesting idea!

    Manga would still be accessible in the U.S. Even if Japanese publishers do simply suspend all licenses and refuse to let manga leave the shores of Japan, American libraries still would not yank all the manga they already own off their shelves.

    Now I wonder how much or how little backlash there would be from and from people who read Japanese outside Japan (expats, emigrants, some descendants of emigrants, foreign language students, etc.).

    Would Amazon ignore the don’t-export-any-manga-we-publish idea, would it just drop those imprints altogether, or something else? Would Japanese readers abroad who like comics travel to Japan more often to buy manga, or switch from reading manga to reading other comics, or something else? How many Japanese readers abroad already don’t like comics in the first place? What effects (if any) would suspending the French, German, Korean, etc. translation licenses have on US manga fans?

    “…To me the heart of matter is a culture that rewards infantile attitudes. I doubt American culture is going to change anytime soon, so I don’t know what the solution is.”

    (a) One part of the matter is the nasty stereotyping that says comics and other “geek” interests are for anti-social people and that says anti-social people should like comics and other “geek” interests. This discourages people with fewer infantile attitudes from becoming US manga fans, scientists, etc…

    …and encourages people with more infantile attitudes to become US manga fans, scientists, etc. instead of US football fans, salespeople, etc. in the first place.

    Part of the solution is to fight that stereotyping at the source – to not dismiss all people interested in comics, SF, math, tech, etc. as socially inept. Also to not go “oh well, we can’t expect any better, s/he’s a comics reader/SF fan/mathematician/techie/etc.” and lower our standards when some people in those circles treat other people badly.

    (b) Another part of the matter may be which markets which manga artists and publishers target, since “US fans” aren’t a monolith (and other fans aren’t either). My guess is that:

    (1) Comics titles marketed to small children get ripped off the least, since those fans aren’t yet old enough to be computer-savvy enough to use scanners without grown-up help in the first place.

    (2) Comics titles marketed to preteens and immature-at-heart-adults (especially those sticking close to formulae like endless-rounds-of-fight-scenes or capes-and-spandex-blood-and-gore or panty-shots-up-school-uniform-skirts) get ripped off more since those fans are are old enough to be computer-savvy enough to use scanners and more of them have infantile attitudes.

    (3) Comics titles marketed to older and/or more-mature-at-heart readers (especially those for adults because they’re about adults) get ripped off less (even though the fans are old enough to be computer-savvy enough to use scanners), since fewer of those fans have infantile attitudes.

    What I don’t know is how much or how little reality supports this guess. Does Ōoku : The Inner Chambers (marketed to adults) get ripped off any less than One Piece (marketed to preteen kids)? Which titles do get ripped off more? Which audiences are these made for? Which titles get ripped off less, and which audiences are those made for? Are the former audiences any more or less infantile on average than the latter?

  20. The ones that get “ripped off” the most are those with the most demand, because there’s more of an audience for them. It’s going to be easier to find online some Viz multi-million seller than a lesser-known title from a smaller publisher. Josei is in less demand than yaoi, which is less popular than Bleach or Naruto. Younger people titles are still better-sellers, I think, than those items aimed at adults.

  21. Shiny Noctowl

    Only the first 7 volumes of Pokémon Adventures are published in America; Japan is up to 36.

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