Scanlation Smackdown

It’s finally happening.  Manga publishers are mad as hell and they’re not taking it anymore.  Banding together in both Japan and the U.S., publishers have formed an alliance against pirated online manga (scanlations) and scanlation aggregators.

From the press-release:

Today a coalition of Japanese and U.S. publishers announced a coordinated effort to combat a rampant and growing problem of internet piracy plaguing the manga industry. “Scanlation,” as this form of piracy has come to be known, refers to the unauthorized digital scanning and translation of manga material that is subsequently posted to the internet without the consent of copyright holders or their licensees. According to the coalition, the problem has reached a point where “scanlation aggregator” sites now host thousands of pirated titles, earning ad revenue and/or membership dues at creators’ expense while simultaneously undermining foreign licensing opportunities and unlawfully cannibalizing legitimate sales. Worse still, this pirated material is already making its way to smartphones and other wireless devices, like the iPhone and iPad, through apps that exist solely to link to and republish the content of scanlation sites.

My editor Calvin Reid breaks the story at Publishers Weekly and gives some background on scanlation in the U.S.

Anime News Network picks up the story for a raucus gunfight in their comments section and discussion forum.

Over at Japanator, some interesting comments are coming in on this story, too.  My favorite so far is:

Next they’re going to start putting locked glass doors in front of the manga sections and forbidding librarys from buying their manga.

The above quote taken from the press-release issued earlier today from Viz Media is pretty wrenching in how widespread and out of control scanlation has grown.  Scanlation used to be something like a mixed tape – pass it around, share it.  Friend to friend, fan to fan.  And then the little guy was absorbed by the big guy.  And now aggregator sites make money off of pirated manga.  And apps have been built to better access those aggregator sites.  And publishers issuing cease and desist letters to scanlators are getting a strange response (in at least one case that I know of) where the scanlator has already pulled the scans of the license property years ago, but the scans have become viral – and collected by a big aggregator.  Cease and desist?

Better yet, fans who simply scan and upload the licensed, translated, and published manga that’s released in the U.S. by domestic publishers.  As Kurt Hassler tells it:

“These sites are run as businesses and include direct scans of licensed English-language manga editions. Some even include our copyright notices.”

I find this funny, but in the same way I find my son shooting chocolate milk out of his nostrils funny: hilarious, but also disgusting.

This is also the way I feel after reading some of the comments on the discussion thread at Anime News Network and Japanator.  One thing that technology has done – aside from tearing down borders, bringing everything foreign much closer to home, and democratizing information, is that it’s built this “free” experience that’s really only free for some.  It’s free for you if you’re consuming it, but it’s not free if you’re the person making it.  So essentially, the democratization of information is about privileging one side of the equation – the consumer side.  So instead of a global economy, what we’re really left with is a sense of global entitlement.

One card that fans have been playing in the scanlation hand is this sense of “scanlations are my only choice, otherwise I can’t read this manga” because it’s not available to American or English reading audiences, or because the American release is too slow.  I find this argument befuddling.  Just because you want it doesn’t mean you can have it.  A lot of times, what you want isn’t even up to you.  Take me for example.  I want peace in the Middle East and look what’s happening.

To further illustrate my point, I was in the spoon+fork office and founder and CEO Bryan Ong was kind enough to bring in some peanut brittle his mother had given him from her latest trip to the Philipines.  Anyone who knows me knows that I live on a strict diet of sugar and fat, so I was in love with the stuff.  It was buttery – the kind of buttery that you can smell when you take off the lid to the jar – and it was sweet, but not cloyingly so.  It was crisp without being so crunchy that my teeth hurt.  Basically, it tasted good and it was good to eat.  Unfortunately, we only had two jars and even after careful rationing, we went through the first jar in a few days.

Here’s the deal.  As it turns out, this peanut brittle can’t be found anywhere south of Canal Street or east of Grand in NYC.  Nor can it be found anywhere in Jersey.  In fact, it’s hard to find in the Philippines.  I couldn’t believe it.  Didn’t this vendor have distribution to major retail outlets in Manila?  No.  The peanut brittle had distribution on a roadside stall on a small, hard to get to island in the archipelago.  Once we were done with the second jar, there was no more peanut brittle.

So.  The moral of the story is: If I can’t have my peanut brittle, you can’t have your manga.

The other moral of the story is one that questions this rationale of “without scans I won’t have access to the manga I want” which I read as a bullshit excuse for not supporting the creators in Japan.  Manga isn’t a one way street that’s purely about fan pleasure.  It’s a club that fans are allowed access to by way of an entry fee – i.e. buying the book, not simply reading it, but buying it as well.  Somehow, fan culture here is about reading or consuming these properties, involving themselves in these narratives without supporting its creator or the infrastructure that allows for this material to be made.

Scanlation wasn’t always piracy.  In early stages, it was Robin Hood.  But now, instead of stealing and giving, it’s stealing and selling.  And that’s what makes it criminal.  Someone else who didn’t even make the scans, someone who doesn’t even care about manga but cares a whole lot about making a buck, is making money off of something that you, a fan, love.

If you’re reading pirated manga online at one of the aggregator scan sites, I invite you to buy the Japanese edition as well.  I’ve read scanlations of a bunch of series that probably won’t be licensed in the U.S., but I also buy the Japanese edition from Kinokuniya (they have an online store, by the way, so shipping is much less than ordering from Japan), or the Taiwan or Hong Kong licensed editions from one of the bookstores downtown.  This doesn’t excuse that I’m supporting piracy, but at the very least I can do a small part in supporting the creators and editors who are working their asses off to bring their stories to the public.



  1. […] manga writer Kai-Ming Cha summarizes the way scanlations have morphed from hobby to big business: Scanlation used to be […]

  2. They have my full support to shut down the pirates (or try to anyway). But I’m baffled by the lack of business sense of the companies. “Wait, we have readers who want our stuff in this format? Maybe there’s a way we could do this format ourselves, intergrate it with our current formats, and make more money than we are now.” It’s like they learned nothing from what the music industry went through and are paying no attention to how webcomic side of the business has figured out how to turn their best into paid full-time professionals.

  3. Andre said

    What works for a self-publisher doing their comics at their own pace, possibly while also working a day job, may not work for a large industry with numerous employees and production rates that demand a certain amount of sales to keep up stuff like say, Naruto. Comparing webcomics, which still are in their infancy and by no means a solid business even though a handful of cartoonists have done well with it (mostly by publishing their work in Print, and selling it in bookstores or online), to a successful publishing format that’s been around forever isn’t really fair or practical. Most anime/manga fans have no sweet clue how hard it is to make a living with webcomics, or to even make any meaningful money with webcomics.

  4. […] Also, check out more commentary on this story from Comics Beat, Robot 6 and Publishers Weekly writer Kai-Ming Cha. […]

  5. Actually, ads are the primary source of income for webcomics. Books and swag run a close second and third.

    The independent creators doing it full time are more than handful now, although I don’t think they’ve quite hit triple digits yet. There are conventions popping up with webcomics as the focus, including two a year with industry leader Penny Arcade as the brand name on the conventions. Webcomics have a presence at most comic conventions, including their own little neighborhood at Comic-Con, where they pay to set up every year because it’s profitible for them. The big names like Penny Arcade and PvP have been at this for a dozen years now – profitably for most of that time. Penny Arcade supports six people with nine panels a week (well, it looks like six people. I know it was four a few years back and that they’ve expanded since then, but google isn’t giving any useful answers right now. Either way, the strip doesn’t just have creators – it has staff). Webcomics have not completely matured, but they are hardly still in their infancy.

    The biggest problems any comic has reaching profitibility on the web have already been resolved by the Manga companies. First, they have to reach a professional level of quality. Being published by a big company who was willing to spend money on the comic is usually an indicator of quality. It might still be bad, but it will be professionally bad rather than amateur bad. The second is building your audience and getting them used to the delivery system. If you have a piracy problem, congratulations, you have an audience trained to want both your content and electronical distribution. Making money off of them still requires some effort – any effort – on the part of the publishers. I’m sure greed will eventually win over fear, but man, am I glad these guys don’t make up much of my stock portfolio.

    What’s odd about the publishing companies is that instead of trying to adapt the proven profit of ad supported web distrubution, they’re trying direct downloads instead. I’m sure there is a market for ad-free, convenietly packaged chunks of comic, but it’s hardly a proven in comparison with the ad supported form. Wowio continues to be a mess, and while some big webcomics repackaged their stuff to work better with the iPhone’s small screen, most haven’t bother to do anything new for the iPad. After all, it already has a web browser, so why go through the extra work?

  6. And after all that nonsense, I still forgot my original response. The only title to survive the implosion of CMX? Megatokyo. I’m just wondering which imprint they’ll put it under. It could end up as the first webcomic with DC (or Marvel for that matter) on the spine of its trades.

  7. […] [7] Cha, Kai-Ming. “Scanlation Smackdown.” Boiled Egg. 8 June 2010. Web. 16 June 2010. […]

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