If you haven’t heard the news, a international coalition of 36 publishers and distributors are going to band together to take legal action against illegal manga distribution websites. You can read up on the story at Publishers Weekly. If you have no idea what a scanlation is, I highly suggest you visit http://insidescanlation.com for more information.
Online manga: where is it? Some would say it’s passed around via the Internet as scanlations. And that’s a problem.
That problem, though, is two-sided. The obvious first side is that scanlations are technically illegal. But the second — and more important — side is that legal alternatives to online manga distribution do not exist. Yes, you can say that there are experiments with online distribution (such as Viz’s online Signature Ikki magazine), but the fact remains that a universal and ubiquitous legal alternative for online distribution of every English-language manga published in the United States does not currently exist.
There are some subsequent problems as well, and I would like to take the opportunity of this post to go through them. I feel like these issues have not been addressed, particularly since no alternative to illegal distribution websites has been offered by the Coalition as of this writing.
The Problem of Terms: Scanlations, Scans, and RAWs
When people talk about the issues surrounding the illegal, global distribution of printed Japanese comics, they encapsulate the issues with the term “scanlations.” Instead of one issue, though, there are three issues at stake: scanlations, scans, and RAWs. The problem with the discourse surrounding online distribution of manga is that it’s a bi-national issue, though critics tend to come at it from one of the two perspectives. So, to break it down:
1. Japanese (and others) are uploading scans of original Japanese comics to the Internet and are distributing them illegally.
2. Americans (and others) are uploading scans of original English translations of original Japanese comics to the Internet and are distributing them illegally.
3. Americans (and others) are uploading fan-translated scans of original Japanese comics to the Internet and are distributing them illegally.
These are the three issues at stake, and they all account for different parts of the “scanlation” debate. To apply terms to each of the situations above, (1) is a RAW issue, (2) is a scan issue, and (3) is a scanlation issue. And to define these words for those unfamiliar with the terms:
- A “RAW” is a scan of the original Japanese comic, untranslated (the term “RAW” actually presupposed translation, hence the original untranslated print material being “unprocessed” by fans).
- A “scan” is basically the same thing as a RAW, but it is a scanned copy of officially translated material distributed by publishing companies outside of Japan (eg., Viz, Vertical, Dark Horse, etc.).
- A “scanlation” is a fan-produced translation of a RAW comic. A scanlation cannot be a translation of a scan, unless said scanlation is translated into a language other than the original scan’s language (eg., a French scanlation of Vertical’s production of Osamu Tezuka’s works, originally translated into English by Vertical, Inc.).
So, besides the issue of petulantly defining terms and situations, what’s the importance of drawing these distinctions? Well, to quote the first sentence of the Publishers Weekly article (above), “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 article states that the Coalition will be addressing the issue of “scanlations,” but there are really two more ways to slice this phrasing:
1) Japanese publishers and English publishers are (or should be) more concerned about the illegal distribution of their own properties. That is, for Japanese publishers, they first and foremost do not want to see the illegal distribution of original Japanese language scans (ie., “RAWs”). For American publishers, they first and foremost do not want to see the illegal distribution of scans of their original English-language translations (namely, “scans”).
2) Less important — though still important — is that both Japanese and American publishers want to see a reduction in or end to the illegal distribution of scanlations.
Why make this distinction further? Well, if you have seen the argument about the illegal distribution of English-language fansubs or even the reverse importation of American DVDs into Japan, you’ll note that publishers want to make the most money possible. The most money, therefore, lies within the original products of these publishers. Japanese comic readers should read the original Japanese manga, so having these online negatively impacts the market in Japan. American comic readers should read the official English-language translation of the manga, so having these online also negatively impact the market in America. For scanlations, it’s a bit trickier: they obviously represent a direct opposition to official publications, but the draw to buying official publications is the physical material: “better” translations, “better” physical quality (image and book), etc. But, of course, “better” does not always happen: be it in the failure of companies to produce a better product (eg., the translation might actually suck) or be it in the personal aesthetic values of different fans (eg., some fans will argue that scanlations are better because they avoid localization with a more literal translation).
There have been some arguments that scanlations help the American side of the distribution industry because it helps introduce titles to fans. While this was true in the past, I personally will deny this to be true today: the fans that are reading manga online already seek out or are at least introduced to titles in respective online communities (forums, chatrooms, social networks, etc.). In the end, there are no numbers to support this assertion. Entirely separate from these numbers are the numbers that illustrate the effect of scans and RAWs on distribution companies, of which there are statistics (and you can hear about them in this episode of the ANNcast with guest Ed Chavez, from Vertical, Inc.).
So, as I’ve introduced above, the scanlation debate is complex and definitely does not aid fans in understanding how the industry works (since there are practically no case studies publicized anywhere). But the debate really does have to be contended distinctly, because there are many issues at stake which without well-defined boundaries will confuse a lot of people. Ultimately, the problem with the Coalition will be competing companies and differing cultural modes of print consumption (eg., serialized compilations in Japan versus tankoubon-style paperbacks in the U.S.).
The Debate Over Numbers
* You’ll notice that the page states OneManga.com does not use advertising, but I believe the page account for Google Ads (because OneManga.com does in fact use ads on practically every page of its website).
Google states that OneManga.com has achieved a 0.3% penetration rate. According to the “about” page, “You can see a list of the largest 1000 sites worldwide, based on Unique Visitors (users), as measured by Ad Planner. This list is updated monthly as new Ad Planner datasets are released. The list defines sites as top-level domains.” The key here is that Google is calculating the size of a website based on its community. But even more interestingly is that while OneManga draws in 4.2 million unique visitors monthly, it achieve 1.1 billion page views (which, if you go examine the page, is waaay larger than most of the sites in that range). The reason for this is that 1) with such a loyal audience (who go to the website primarily to read manga, 2) they achieve a higher visit duration compared to other websites, and therefore 3) we see many more pages visited per user (particularly because the majority of the OneManga website is constructed of pages upon pages of comics).
The key point of the Top 1000 ranking, therefore, is not that OneManga gets visited by a lot of people, but that it retains a highly devoted audience. While the reason can be debated (it is perhaps likely that the internal community continually attracts users, rather than the manga pages; or, perhaps a small handful of series gathers 80% of the traffic), the point is that this audience is loyal to OneManga.com and not manga per se.
The Seclusion of Illegal Online Fandoms
Early media fandoms operated covertly in terms of distribution: most limited the dissemination of media objects to internal distribution within the (usually moderated) community. For example, many media-related LiveJournal communities still function as moderated hierarchies, carefully controlling the selection and admission of new members to the community. Even checking out Baka-Updates Manga illustrates that a large number of translation communities for manga still rely on IRC or similar communication protocols to distribute their translations amongst acquaintances. At the Media in Transition 6 conference, Professor Carolina Acosta-Alzuru (University of Georgia) accounts for similar gated community practices amongst the foreign, online audiences of telenovelas, which — as must be noted — do not have an official, legal translator-distributor outside of Latin America (in converse to the manga and anime industries in the United States).
I predict that, just like the online telenovela audiences, scanlation teams and communities will — in the face of legal action — retreat away from prying eyes into further gated communities, allowing only internal (sometimes P2P-enabled) distribution. But it remains to be seen what stances and strategies the international Coalition will adopt, particularly if they primarily target large distribution websites (like OneManga) or also go after smaller communities (like smaller scanlation groups). The equation pretty much comes down to the relative opposition between exposure (how noteworthy each community is), resources (how many people and how much effort the Coalition will be able to expend on this endeavor), and fan activity (how well they can maneuver around old and new online spaces).
Therefore, scanlations will not end, particularly since a small number of fans still produce fan translations as celebratory fan activities (or just to practice their translation skills).
Marketing to Online Communities: From Grassroots to Forced Seeding
One of my points of research is into how ideas spread online. Over the past few years, one term has been co-opted to describe popular trends in content (usually video) online: viral. Viral came to be adopted after the concept of memetic spread (for Internet memes) became popular, borrowing from the word meme‘s roots in Richard Dawkin’s 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. If you follow the online marketing space, then, you might have come across viral marketing as a new trend in getting as many people as possible to watch (and hopefully share) your advertisement (or other piece of media).
The problem with virality, though, is that mapping how users share content within an online community (or across multiple communities) is pretty damn complicated. It requires figuring out what audiences reside where and who acts as the links between distinct communities. My mentor, Henry Jenkins, has described that form of sharing as “spreadability” (which you can read about in his white paper, If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead: Creating Value in a Spreadable Marketplace). Anyway, one point that is never really discussed among marketers operating in “viral marketing” is the process of injecting content into communities that might appreciate and then spread said content. Ironically (since we’re talking about online piracy), the marketers have co-opted another term to describe the process of community injection: seeding (from the seeding of P2P BitTorrent sharing). Unlike strange, popular Internet phenomena (like Susan Boyle) which spread organically among friends, colleagues, etc., raising hit counts as people honestly visit them, these marketers have to literally introduce their media forcefully to communities that have been targeted as potentially finding value in that media. The spread, therefore, is not necessarily organic, due to this seeding process.
I bring up seeding, though, because it identifies one key component of the online manga fandom (also applying to other media fandoms online) that the Coalition will have to leverage (and perhaps exploit) when they decide to introduce a new legal alternative to online manga distribution: spreading content through communities. The undisclosed problem being that the manga readers the Coalition assumes to exist are actually just part of the community of each respective illegal manga website. Rym and Scott, in a recent GeekNights episode, purported that manga fans do not exist in the capacity that publishers think they do. Instead, there are teenagers without disposable incomes that utilize sites like OneManga but are extracting more value than just the manga. The manga buying audience, though, does not exist on these websites. They argue, therefore, that closing down scanlation websites will do nothing to help the American industry.
I am tempted to agree with the GeekNights hosts, but lets assume that the Coalition does introduce a new online distribution system: how are they going to find an audience for it? Or, more pressing, how are they going to find an audience for each particular licensed title, so that each can be monetized? Because while the system itself might attract some viewers, each title will have to fend for itself in the online ecosystem. At the moment, OneManga (as I hinted at above) creates an ecosystem where fans become acclimated to titles through a specific community, be it OneManga or another online forum. In order to create a fiscally successful distribution system, the Coalition will have to learn and be able to seed these titles to the correct communities (as well as set up a system that accounts for a potentially non-monetizable user base, aka. kids without credit cards). Otherwise, it will ultimately fail.
Years of Waiting: Where’s the Crunchyroll for Manga?
And then there’s one final point: how come nobody tried the whole Coalition thing five years ago? Crunchyroll started to craft a business model to capitalize on fans’ online modes of anime consumption back in mid-2006, but we still haven’t seen one distribution system that aggregates thousands of manga streams around a centralized community (à la Crunchyroll). The interesting bit is the potential for OneManga to become the next Crunchyroll, following the same historical progression of illegal-to-legal distribution website. A hypothetical, but: What if OneManga received enough venture funding to go legit by partnering with Japanese companies? And how does such a hypothetical reshape our understanding of the space that OneManga inhabits as an illegal site but also a hotbed for media fans in a thriving online community?
Then, too, what if we see ventures like OpenManga directly competing with any effort that the Coalition puts forth? (Of course, there’s also the subsequent question of how OpenManga will also drive its own community.)
A Conclusion of Open-Ended Questions
So, where do we go from here? Unfortunately, we just have to sit tight and wait it out. Not many (if any) publishers have made official statements regarding their involvement in the Coalition, strategies for tackling scanlation/scan/RAW websites, or announcements about further solutions to legal online manga distribution. But at the very least, I hope these issues have been fleshed out at least a little to provide some insight into the multifaceted problem with the problem of online manga.