Publishers Threaten Manga Scanlation Sites

I just realized I never covered last month’s “news” that publishers don’t like manga scan sites. These sites — of which the best-known are OneManga and MangaFox, but searching “free manga” on Google will turn up many more — post large numbers of manga pages to read online for free. They’re often called “scanlation” sites, after the original purpose of translating manga not yet available in English based on cleaned-up scans of the Japanese pages, but they frequently post scanned pages of manga licensed and published in English, too. From the article about publisher action:

An international coalition of Japanese and American-based manga publishers have joined together to combat what they call the “rampant and growing problem” of scanlations, the practice of posting scanned and translated editions of Japanese comics online without permission of the copyright holders. The group is threatening legal action against 30 scanlation sites.

Since manga sales aren’t as high as they used to be — a statement true of most industries, especially entertainment ones, in a recession that has yet to let go its hold — manga industry companies can no longer afford to turn a blind eye:

Many manga publishers and retailers who used to believe that scanlations actually attracted new readers, now blame the sales decline on the rise of giant for-profit scanlation sites that have allowed a new generation of fans to grow up reading manga for free online.

It’s a convenient source of blame that allows publishers to ignore the general economic slowdown, any publisher-specific issues (perhaps your current series aren’t as desirable, or fans are reacting to rising prices), or other factors that may also affect sales negatively. And yes, some customers with less spending money (because they’re poor or young) prefer “free” to “$10 a book”, especially for titles they may not love or be uncertain about. In other words, reasons for reading free online manga may differ per person. (Disclaimer: I have reviewed a scanlated series before, one that otherwise wasn’t available in English. I think there is a significant distinction to be made between “I can’t get it legally in my language” and “I don’t want to pay for what I can get free”.)

The international anti-scan effort includes all major publishers: “such major Japanese houses as Kodansha, Shogakukan, and Shueisha” and “U.S.-based manga publishers Vertical, Viz Media, Tokyopop, and Yen Press, the manga/graphic novel imprint of the Hachette Book Group.” According to a spokesperson, “It is our sincere hope that offending sites will take it upon themselves to immediately cease their activities. Where this is not the case, however, we will seek injunctive relief and statutory damages.” They will also report sites to law enforcement groups. However, strangely, “the group has yet to file any lawsuits and has declined to name specific scanlators”. Do they not want to tip off the sites they are targeting before they sue? Or was this announcement intended as a scare effort, to try and make sites shut down out of fear without any actual legal action? Can some of these sites even be effectively prosecuted? Lawsuits have failed to shut down the Pirate Bay, although companies have been trying for years, due to international complications and differing laws in different countries. And suing sites fans love may cause a backlash.

Note that not all manga publishers are against scanlation sites. Dark Horse (whose manga sales went up this year) and Digital Manga (who wants to hire scanlators for no up-front pay, just back-end profits, in a speculative venture), for example, don’t blame them for sales difficulties. Vertical and Yen Press, in contrast, are very anti-online manga. So I’m curious — now, a month later, what is the actual effect? (Bearing in mind, of course, that the HTML Comics shutdown was reportedly in the works for a year or more before the site was actually taken down.)

While some popular sites took down titles, those changes in many cases were misleading or temporary. As the link says, “removals are likely to be largely cosmetic as visitors and fans continue to be able to access series via RSS subscriptions or mobile phone applications. Observers have also noticed that since pulling the titles, a few of the illegal scans have gone back up on the aggregator sites.” So the chapters are gone, unless you know tricks to get to them, or the removal was to look like sites were playing along while the news was hot. In one case I found, doesn’t have the work but similar site does, and OneManga will kindly tell you that. What’s the difference? Who knows. That domain may be registered in a more pirate-friendly country or under different (at least on paper) ownership.

Former aggregator Manga Helpers did remove all infringing material, instead publishing text translations and attempted to launch a release platform site called OpenManga.

I’ve also found it interesting to note how some of the discussion has revolved around “it was different then”. Old-style scanlation groups, who took down translations if series were licensed, are considered fan-based, while the big aggregator sites are bad because they’re in it for money (ad revenue). Some former scanlators have even been hired by U.S. publishers for their translation skills. And knowing what American fans are talking about can give publishers an idea of what to pursue for upcoming licenses. Many of those scanlation groups, who do the original translating, have requested their works be removed from the aggregators. The problem there is, once something’s on the internet, it may be there forever, regardless of what the original poster does or wants.

Jake Forbes (link no longer available) speculates that growing international approaches and technology might eliminate the middleman, that is, the American licensed publisher. The comments to that post include the interesting factoid that manga cafes are hated in Japan. Lissa Pattillo has summed up many of the arguments for and against scanlations in this “quit doing it!” post while Kimi-chan breaks down different audience types (link no longer available). My favorite:

… the too dim to look in a bookstore type. Yes, seriously, there are actual conversations posted by teens who have been caught by surprise at the long list of titles being removed from sites such as MangaFox, AnimeA, and now Mangatoshokan after a cease and desist order from the likes of Viz Media. Not shock at how much pirated material was out there, but, wait for it… “Wow, a lot of stuff suddenly got licensed!” Hello?!

… anyone who actually BUYS manga would know many of the titles have been licensed for YEARS. These kids “like” manga, but let’s face it, they are not on the otaku wavelength as 1. they don’t look to buy it 2. obviously don’t follow manga/anime news to keep informed 3. never been to a con, or they would have seen the licensed editions, and so on. One REALLY wants to introduce these kids to the amazing concept of a BOOKSTORE where you look for stuff you might like to read, and then… BUY IT!

So will anything change? It hasn’t for now. That may change if actual legal action is taken. Let’s end on this NPR blog summation post, just because they indicate the general uncertainty of the market at this point and say nice things about my site.


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