A while back, I focused my Digital Renaissance column around the practice of fansubbing within the anime community, arguing that grassroots appropriation and circulation of media content had in this case helped to open the American market for Asian made media. This practice of amateur translation and subtitling took on some of the risks of innovation, testing new content, identifying niche publics, expanding the base through education and outreach, until the content could become commercially viable.
A story this week suggests that this whole underground economy – and its symbiotic relations with media producers and distributors – may be the latest victim of the media industry’s blood-thirsty campaign against file-sharing in any shape or size. CJNet reports on cease and desist letters flying from anime distributors to the online fan community. To some degree, this is a continuation of a longstanding understanding that once a series becomes commercially available, it is removed from uncommercial circulation.
To some degree, the groups being targeted are groups which do not simply step outside the law but also those which violate long-standing fan norms. (These kinds of moral economies often go into a crisis when the base of participants expands rapidly in the new digital environment). But to some degree, the anime companies are also violating the norms of past relationships and they may live to regret it. At the center of this tugawar is the news that while sales of top commercial properties have expanded, midlist titles are declining in sales.
How do we account for this decline?
1.There has been a dramatic expansion of available content and the market has not grown fast enough to support it. If this is the case, then the fan community is needed as evangelists now more than ever.
2. Consumers are sampling product online and turning towards only that content they like. If this is the case, then the companies need to be more selective in identifying relevent properties and again they might be better served by partnering with rather than waging legal warfare on the fan community.
3.Consumers are sampling content online and unwilling to pay for what they can get for free. This is the interpretation the anime companies have made but as the above suggests, there are always other possible explanations.
4.The anime companies are increasingly alienating their fans and they don’t care if they rip them off anymore. See 3.