When news broke last month that a coalition of American comics publishers banded together to sic lawyers and the FBI on HTMLcomics.com, a popular website that hosted unauthorized scans of new and old comics, many industry watchers wondered if U.S. and Japanese publishers would take similar action against manga scanlation sites. Well, the speculation is over.
As of this morning, news broke on Publishers Weekly, Anime News Network and via press releases from VIZ Media and tweets from TokyoPop that 36 Japanese publishers (joined together as the Japanese Digital Comic Association) and U.S. manga publishers, including Yen Press, TokyoPop, Vertical Inc., and the Tuttle-Mori Agency have announced the formation of "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."
Squarely in the coalition's sights are the numerous scanlation aggregation websites that host unauthorized, fan-translated and scanned pages from Japanese manga and Korean manhwa. Many of these sites host thousands of pages of manga without the permission of the manga creators or publishers, and several have garnered enough webtraffic to rank in the top 1,000 of websites in the world. While many fans have come to rely on these sites for a free manga fix, the growing popularity of these sites on top of the declining sales of manga in recent years, in both Japan and the U.S. has made scanlation websites a sore spot for many publishers.
"Go back two years and track these sites and you'll find an inverse relationship between the rise of traffic on these scanlation sites and the decline in U.S. manga sales," said Kurt Hassler, publishing director of Yen Press and a former graphic novel and manga buyer for Borders Books and Music.
As the coalition's press release describes the current situation:
"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.
Until recently, individual publishers have had limited success getting their licensed titles removed from these websites. For example, Dark Horse and Yen Press successfully petitioned Onemanga.com to remove titles like Gantz and Black Butler from their online rosters. But despite these efforts, only a handful of titles have been removed out of hundreds listed. But from the sound of things, publishers are taking things to the next level by pooling their financial and legal resources to stop online piracy.
As the press release describes this new effort:
"Working together, the membership of the coalition will actively seek legal remedies to this intellectual property theft against those sites that fail to voluntarily cease their illegal appropriation of this material."
"It is unfortunate that this action has become necessary," said a spokesperson for the group. "However, to protect the intellectual property rights of our creators and the overall health of our industry, we are left with no other alternative but to take aggressive action. 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. We will also report offending sites to federal authorities, including the anti-piracy units of the Justice Department, local law enforcement agencies and FBI."
Translated into plain-speak, it means that the coalition's press release is meant to be the first warning shot; a nudge meant to urge scanlation websites to remove unauthorized, scanned and translated manga from their rosters. If this warning is not enough, then the coalition will likely escalate matters by pursuing legal action, which might include lawsuits and reporting the offending websites to the police, the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI.
The press release does not name any scanlation sites in particular, but it does mention that 30 known scanlation websites are targeted. Speculation on the various online forums have named popular sites such as OneManga.com, MangaFox and MangaHelpers as examples of websites that the coalition is aiming to address.
Online reaction to the news ran the gamut from "It's about time" to "How dare they!"
"This is fantastic! Finally, publishers are pooling their resources and stepping up to the plate! I love manga and it kills me to see it slowly dying here in the states." - FeralKat, ANN Forums
"...this move is a despicable action taken by industry that simply wants more money." - Animanijak, OneManga Forums
Some scanlators and scan readers bemoaned that "the end is near":
"This site is as good as dead, I'll enjoy the ride while I can before I have to adapt to a new site." - Spade, OneManga Forums
while others crowed that "they can't stop us even if they try."
"Even if they take down this site a other one will take its place , just look at Pirate Bay." - JakeRose20, OneManga forums
Some fans took the news as an opportunity to scold manga publishers for not acting quickly enough to offer online versions of popular manga:
"These companies need to come up with legal solutions to get the content out in reasonable and reliable channels. Has stamping down on mp3 sharing sites really done much to stop music piracy? No." - Aerfyn, ANN Forums
" I don't believe I should be punished or have to wait longer for things just because English is my first language. Its pure discrimination and I won't stand for it in any form." - Ranma87, ANN Forums
Meanwhile, some respondents reminded fans who complained about the possible end of easy access to translated manga that the best way to read the latest and greatest comics straight from Japan was to learn to read Japanese.
"The world doesn't owe you a translation." - CCSYueh, ANN Forums
More than a few fans mentioned that they were willing to pay to read manga online if more authorized translations were readily available online.
"Yeah, they need to start offering manga legally online. I would love them forever if they were able to bring us the newest chapters of One Piece right along with when the Japanese get them in Shonen Jump. I don't care if I have to pay for it, I just wish they'd get something worked out. - Revolutionary, ANN Forums
"If they're going after the online world, that means there might be plans to bring even more manga online, too. Free (with ad revenue), or at least at a very low price. The companies have a potentially huge market waiting to happen, and it's only a matter of time before a smart company decides to bring it all to the net, legally." - serial, Japanator.com
Personally, while I was surprised to hear the news this morning, I was also not that surprised. Given the recent trends in the manga publishing business, and heck, the comics publishing business in general, (e.g. falling sales, several manga publishers going out of business in recent years and the growing interest in digital publishing), it seemed like it was just a matter of time before something like this coalition of U.S. and Japanese publishers would come to pass.
It's very easy for manga fans to do some backseat driving here -- to blame the publishers for "not giving us what we want, when we want it, how we want it, and at the price we want it (free)" -- but come on. It's not cheap, fast or easy to put out simultaneous U.S. / Japan releases of translated manga, much less make it available online in all of the various ebook and online reader formats that are out there now, with so many types of readers (Kindle vs. Nook vs. iPad) vying for supremacy in the market now, much like the battle for platform supremacy that was waged between Betamax and VHS, Playstation vs. Wii vs. XBox.
It takes longer for authorized versions of translated manga to get published in the U.S. because
- Professionally-written, edited and localized manga translations take time to write and edit.
- It takes time to get approvals from licensors, publishers and manga creators, especially between U.S. and Japan.
- It takes time for letterers to adapt the artwork, sound effects and typeset the dialogue so it looks great.
- And let's not forget the last part: it takes money to make, publish, distribute and sell manga -- money to pay the translators, editors, graphic designers, artists, assistants, licensors and printers; just to name a few of the many people it takes to bring manga to you.
To be fair, several publishers have responded to fans' requests for faster releases, such as the recent Naruto and One Piece speeded up releases and the simultaneous online release of new chapters of Rin-Ne by Rumiko Takahashi on ShonenSunday.com. Digital Manga Publishing and Yaoi Press have been offering some of their titles in the Kindle eBook format. NETComics has been offering a pay-per-view model of manga/manhwa publishing for years. And that much-delayed, but still-in-the-works Dark Horse/CLAMP mangettes project promises to offer simultaneous U.S./Japan/Korea publication of new stories by this superstar comics creator collective. It's not exactly "every manga you could ever want to read available to read for free in English the same week as it appears in Japan," but it's a start, and it's darn sure better than nothing.
Publishing manga is not meant to be a "not-for-profit" venture. It's a business, and it's a business that must be profitable to stay alive, much less have money to spend on developing innovative new ways to deliver manga to readers via online or digital distribution.
This announcement means that the manga publishers in the U.S. and Japan are taking a major step toward changing the status quo, and it likely won't be the only change that they'll be making in the months to come. In any case, it's sure to be interesting times ahead.
But that's my take on it -- what's yours? Add your comments below -- I'd love to hear what you think.
UPDATE: Here's the list of the 36 Japanese publishers who are part of the Japanese Digital Comic Association:
Akane Shinsha, Akita Shoten, ASCII Media Works, East Press, Ichijinsha, Enterbrain, Okura Shuppan, Ohzora Shuppan, Gakken, Kadokawa Shoten, Gentosha Comics, Kodansha, Jitsugyo No Nihonsha, Shueisha, Junet, Shogakukan, Shogakukan Shueisha Production, Shodensha, Shonen Gahosha, Shinshokan, Shinchosa, Take Shobo, Tatsumi Shuppan, Tokuma Shoten, Nihon Bungeisha, Hakusensha, Fujimi Shobo, Fusosha, Futabasha, France Shoin, Bunkasha, Houbunsha, Magazine House, Media Factory, Leed sha, Libre Shuppan.
UPDATE 2: And the commentary on this subject keeps on rolling in. Here are two essays that are well-worth reading, from two folks who know a lot about the issues at hand, and are prepared to offer some interesting perspectives, and some bold ideas.
- Gottsu-Iiyan (a.k.a. Ian) is a professional translator living in Japan. His essay "Moral Relativism and Content Piracy" pretty much offers the most thorough take-down of almost every excuse for making and reading scanlations out there. Even if you feel comfortable with where you stand on scanlation, it's a must-read.
- Jake Forbes is a manga editor (One Piece, Fullmetal Alchemist) and author (Return to Labyrinth), so he's knows his stuff -- but what's refreshing about his essay, "Dear Manga, A Postscript" is that he's not just pointing fingers -- he's offering some ideas for some very different solutions that, if implemented, could really shake things up.
Image credits: © VIZ Media, © TOKYOPOP, © Yen Press, © Yana Toboso / SQUARE ENIX, © Deb Aoki