Piracy Wars: The Origins of Fansubs


Piracy Wars: The Origins of Fansubs

Piracy Wars: The Origins of FansubsBecause of the rapid advances in computer technologies, we are able to transfer vast amounts of data over the Internet in only a short period of time. We can convert movies and TV shows into video files that are compressed a great deal to save on space, yet lose little on video quality.  As such, anime fans are well aware of the term “fansubs,” even if they don’t use them.

For those who don’t know, a fansub is where a fan of a particular movie or series (in this case, an anime title) has it translated, and then the video of the particular movie or series re-encoded to incorporate the subtitles and whatever else the fansubber wants to have in there.  A torrent file is then made for the video in question, so as to allow the file to be shared via various Peer-2-Peer networks, and then the fansubber seeds said file so people can start downloading it.

The process of fansubbing today is fairly simple and cheap.  However, this was not always the case.  When fansubbing began back in the 80’s, it took quite a bit of money and the equivalent of a small, video production studio to make a fansub.  That being the case, why did fansubs get started and what all was involved in making them?

Japanese animation has long been known to people in the U.S.  Back in the 1970’s, anime titles such as Space Battleship Yamato and Gatchaman were licensed for U.S. consumption. Space Battleship Yamato was renamed to Star Blazers and all of its characters were given American names. The story was heavily edited to remove fanservice, other sexual elements, alcohol consumption, much of the violence, and many World War II references.  For Gatchaman, it was renamed to Battle of the Planets.  It suffered even worse edits than Yamato as the characters were not only renamed, but crappy animation sequences were added to show that people who died were in fact robots.  Rather than take place solely on Earth like Gatchaman, the story was changed so that they went to planets that all looked like Earth.

Even in the 80s, anime was being licensed and converted to an American thing. Thus the three unrelated anime titles of Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA were merged to form the American Robotech franchise. The stories were changed to force-fit the three unrelated series together, including renaming all the characters.  There were other anime titles were were also licensed, merged, and renamed, and rewritten for American consumption. Voltron is another example of this.

By this time, the relatively small numbers of anime fans in the U.S. held a desire to have anime officially licensed in the U.S. and sold on VHS in an unedited form, unlike the earlier American licensing forays which were all edited.  To pave the way for Americans to see anime titles they wouldn’t have otherwise heard of, groups of anime fans pooled their resources to form a fansub group and spread the word about a specific anime title. The hope was that people in America would see these anime titles, then start demanding more, giving American companies a reason to take a risk and license more anime, hopefully in unedited form.  If the group succeeded and said title they were fansubbing were licensed, the fansub group would then stop distributing the title and tell people to buy the official, licensed version.

In order to make a fansub back in the 80’s, a group needed quite a bit of expensive video equipment, enough to found a small video production studio.  For starters, the fansub group needed a laserdisc (LD) player for high-quality source video. Two (or more) hi-fi VHS VCR’s were required, and possibly an S-VHS VCR as well.  The fansub group would then have to invest in the expensive, HQ VHS video tapes to ensure quality of transfer. Some video overlay equipment would be needed for the subtitles to be placed on the output video tape. This alone was quite an expense for a fansub group, and we haven’t even added the costs of importing massively expensive LDs or VHS’s from Japan.  Once all of this was done, a translator would be needed, otherwise everything was moot. However, the translator would usually be secured early on.

Piracy Wars: The Origins of FansubsOnce a fansub group was founded and the costs of the equipment disseminated among the members (if needed), what ever anime they wished to bring to American audiences was selected and subtitled.  Master tapes of the series with the subtitles were then created.  Small, classified ads would usually be placed in genre publications for sci-fi, fantasy, or comic books to reveal the existence of a fansub group. A list of fansubbed works could be obtained by writing said group via the mail, with a self-addressed stamped envelope for the fansub group to send you the list.  Then, you’d select the titles you wished to see, send it back to the fansub group via the mail, along with postage for the fansub group to mail you tapes back. Many fansub groups also required folks to send them blank VHS tapes from which to copy the masters to in order to reduce the costs of fansubbing.

If an anime title that a fansub group was working on got licensed, they would immediately stop the distribution of said title and would request folks purchase the official release. However, as you might expect, others who’d received VHS fansubs would then start their own distribution work, whereby they’d start copying their tapes and mailing them out.  This would often result in some people getting multi-generational copied tapes, which were generally of poor video quality, but the distribution of a licensed anime title would continue.

The goals that the pioneering fansub groups set out to achieve were wildly successful.  By the late 80s, companies like AnimEigo and Streamline were founded and started licensing anime for sale on VHS in the U.S. By the early 90s, other companies came into being such as Central Park Media, ADV Films, and more. Thus anime had found a footing in the U.S., thanks in no small part to fansub groups helping spread the word and generate demand for anime.

By 2000, the nature of fansubbing changed as computer technology improved, allowing fansub groups to not have to spend thousands of dollars on all sorts of equipment. The DivX codec allowed AVI video files to be much smaller than regular AVI files. While there were file sharing applications in existence, it was the creation of BitTorrent that really expanded the reach of fansubs. Faster Internet connection speeds continued the spread of fansubs to beyond America’s shores.  Many people from other countries around the world became introduced to anime via fansubs, and since English is mandatorily taught as a second language in many of these countries, English fansubs became the norm worldwide.

During the VHS fansub days, copyright violations were basically ignored by the Japanese copyright owners.  Although fansub groups would usually stop distributing a title once it was licensed, the fact that others would continue copying and distributing tapes of licensed anime was not really seen as a concern by American licensing companies. This continued into the early days of digital fansubbing as the Japanese copyright owners continued to take a blind eye to the issue of anime “piracy”. Even as anime sales in the U.S. were booming, and even subpar anime titles could be licensed and “jazzed up” to make them seem like something better or different than what they actually were (ADV was notorious for this, in my opinion), the issue was still largely ignored.

Piracy Wars: The Origins of FansubsToday, that has all changed. While English fansub groups are now worldwide, Japan no longer takes a blind eye to fansubbing, more so since the global economy is not that good.  Japanese companies want American companies to target fansub groups if possible, just to try to stem the problem.  While the copyright owners allow licensing companies like Crunchyroll or FUNimation to digitally stream new anime titles shortly after they are aired in Japan, region restrictions imposed by the Japanese companies have simply created a new type of fansub group.  These latest generation groups are sometimes based outside of the U.S. (meaning the U.S. companies can’t do anything about it).  They will subtitle their works in English, but often, they will use Crunchyroll’s or FUNimation’s scripts rather than have their own translator. Thus Japan continues to exacerbate the piracy problem that has them so concerned.

However, never fear.  As Crunchyroll recently reported,

Japanese police is still working diligently to find illegal uploaders.

As we all know, illegal uploaders are the worst kind of criminals, even lower than murderers, rapists, or even pedophile producers of child pornography.  ^_~

To be fair, most fansubs do originate from Japan, were Japanese fans upload rips of DVD’s, BD’s, or digital recordings from TV broadcasts.  However, with the high price to purchase anime in Japan, there will still be people to upload anime in Japan despite the diligent work of Inspector Zenigata.  With the region restrictions imposed by Japanese companies on legitimate, online anime sites, there will still be groups that will provide fansubs, or re-encodes of legitimate subs for people worldwide to consume at their leisure. Until Japanese production companies recognize this and address these issues, there won’t be any change in the rampant piracy that the Japanese companies fear.

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6 Responses to “Piracy Wars: The Origins of Fansubs”

  1. evgenidb says:

    I somewhat disagree with your explanation of “fansub”:
    For those who don’t know, a fansub is where a fan of a particular movie or series (in this case, an anime title) has it translated, and then the video of the particular movie or series re-encoded to incorporate the subtitles and whatever else the fansubber wants to have in there. A torrent file is then made for the video in question, so as to allow the file to be shared via various Peer-2-Peer networks, and then the fansubber seeds said file so people can start downloading it.
    Fansubers take a version of the movie, anime, series, etc. and translate it in a given language. Then they provide the subtitles to the public (usually via Internet). Sometimes they re-encode the video source and include the subtitles in the video file itself (this is a common practice in anime fansubers, especially the English ones).

    Sometimes they don’t include it and provide the subs as external file (.sub, .srt, .ass are the most common and .srt and .ass are the most common in the anime). For instance the Russians have a website called fansubs.ru that provides subtitles for various anime and all of the subtitles are external. I.e. the leecher must find his own version of the anime and download it (usually the translators tell you which exactly and sometimes where to download it or put it on their site). Then he must download the subtitles as well.

    This is common practice in live-action movies, series, animations, i.e. everywhere, except in anime. And is rather common practice in Russian fansubs (can’t say for other countries though).

  2. Ultimaniac says:

    Thanks for the history lesson, seriously. I was born after all that, it really was the dark ages of tech wasn’t it?

    • AstroNerdBoy says:

      *lol* Yeah, it really was. I actually saw one old, fansubbed episode of TM!R OVA 2 back before I rented the series. It was awful to look at since it was a multi-generation copy. I think that’s the only classic fansub I’ve ever seen.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Back in the day (pre90s) i bought vhs tapes of Project A-ko, Patlabor the Movie, and others for $15 a piece copied from the original laser disks from a mail order outfit based out of San Fransisco; totally Japanese, no subs at all. And i had a book of anime synopsis i picked up though an ad in ProtoCulture Addicts.
    Just an example of how far we’ve come since then.

    • AstroNerdBoy says:

      I remember Robert showing me ads in magazines back when I lived in Japan. I don’t remember why he never did the fansub thing back then. He just bought the real McCoy stuff on VHS.

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