Legal Doesn’t Matter: More on Scanlation Sites

For the last month or so, spinning out of the Nick Simmons plagiarism mess, various smart people online have been bemoaning scanlation sites like One Manga and MangaFox. (Probably the two best known. I know some will say I shouldn’t be linking to them, but plenty of people easily find them by typing “read free manga online” or similar into Google.) These sites post manga scans online without having the copyright owner’s permission. Some have been translated by fans — either the work isn’t published in English, or the series in Japan is running far ahead of what’s available in the U.S. — while others are scanned from published English translations. What torrents and rapidshare are to superhero comic piracy, these sites are to manga.

The reasons for readers using these sites are varied. Some customers are cheap. They can’t or won’t pay for all the manga they want to read. Some customers are limited. Perhaps they’re younger, and they can’t get to the library or bookstore on their own, or they don’t have a credit card to order online, or they want to read manga that’s rated age 18 and up without being carded. Some customers are picky. They want to try before they buy, and it’s becoming less easy to browse as bookstores realize they can’t stock everything. (This is especially true if you’re interested in books from smaller or less popular publishers, like CMX or Vertical.)

Some think that it’s a matter of education. For instance, Katherine Dacey recently posted in detail about how one of these sites is violating copyright law. The problem there is, I don’t think the users care. After all, there are plenty of laws that people willingly choose to violate every day, such as speeding. (When it comes to teens, there are even more, since technically, sending your also-underage significant other a naughty picture of yourself may qualify as child pornography in some locales. I think this is more a failure of law than of behavior.) Plus, fans have wanted to share things they love for free for decades. Home taping begat Napster, anime video dubs begat DVD burning, and so it continues.

There is minimal benefit to the user, in this case, for respecting copyright law (and what benefit there is, like the publisher not going out of business, is long-term), while there is plenty of immediate benefit in reading online for free. Is it any wonder that the scanlation user sees no reason to quit? If the publisher isn’t trying to shut these sites down, why should the customer take up their battle? The publishers may be trying, behind the scenes, to do something quietly, but if the reader doesn’t know that, and given the length of time these sites have been around, the obvious assumption is that they’re not.

All the customer sees is that the publisher (with the exception of Viz, and their SigIKKI and Rumic World sites) isn’t providing any legitimate alternative. In a way, the publishers have ceded the online reader to the “pirates”. As the iTunes store has demonstrated, it is possible to compete successfully with free. You can make the material easier to find, more reliable in quality, or provide extra features, for example. It requires creative thinking and understanding the audience’s wants more than calling them names and telling them they’re doing bad things, though. That approach doesn’t solve any problem.

Then again, maybe some of the publishers look on the bright side. Coming down hard on scans may seem anti-fan and turn off some customers, while silently tolerating them as “free publicity” might gain some customers who like what they’re seeing so much they want to buy their own copies and other merchandise. Plus, they can track popular, not-yet-translated titles as a kind of audience testing. Various people working at various publishers started in scanlations, so some see some value there. (I’m reminded of a superhero comic higher-up who refused to do anything about fanfic because he enjoyed it in APAs when he was younger. It’s hard to crack down on something you did.)

Anyway, I’m wandering away from my point, which is that fans are unlikely to change their behavior when it’s so easy and fun for them. Daniella Orihuela-Gruber tried to provide a list of alternatives, but all of them require more work or spending money and may not work for you after all. (I’d love to find a used book store that stacked more than 20 volumes of random manga, but I have yet to see one.) Badgering them isn’t going to help. It’s not a matter of ignorance, but of choice.

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