Digital piracy affects almost all forms of media, from books to film to music. Digital piracy has a particularly long and complicated relationship, though, with an art form that is less familiar to mainstream audiences — manga.
Manga is the Japanese term for comics. In America, comics are mostly a special interest. But in Japan, manga has long been a widely popular format. While manga sales are off from their peak, the top-selling manga in 2012 still sold more than 23 million copies in Japan. In contrast, the top comics in America sell in the neighborhood of 200,000 units a month, which would mean only about 1.2 million copies sold for the year.
Manga’s influence is felt far beyond Japan–Japanese comics are a major regional export throughout Asia and Southeast Asia. They’ve also become quite popular in the U.S. market. Japanese titles like Naruto, for example, sell much better in the U.S. than any graphic novel.
While manga eventually conquered America, it took a while. In the early days (pre-1990s), there was growing interest in manga, but little translated product. And so there was the obvious result; fan circles sprang up, as individuals traded Xeroxed copies and translations of titles that had not yet been licensed. As the internet grew, scanlations — or scans of manga with the speech bubbles translated into English — became an important way for fans to access material that was unavailable in the U.S.
Erica Friedman, the president and founder of Yuricon & ALC Publishing, a small specialty manga publisher of yuri, or lesbian-themed manga, has pointed out that scanlations were originally not a problem to be solved, but a solution to an unmet demand. As Friedman says in an article on her website, “It was (and largely still is) a love for a title that leads a person to scan it — not a desire to harm, but a deep desire to share and expand the audience.”
In part because of this history, and in part because translating a manga requires a good bit of work and value-added, the ethical status of scanlations is complicated. As Chris Meadows writes, scanlation “is technically piracy,” and is therefore illegal. But, as manga critic and blogger Brigid Alverson said via email, even though scanlation “violates the law and the creator’s wishes,” it is still “hard to work up much moral outrage about a group of enthusiasts scanlating an obscure or niche manga with narrow appeal that will never be licensed outside Japan.” Moreover, manga publishers have in the past used scanlations as a kind of marketing research — when a scanlation is popular, it’s a good indication that there may be an audience for an official licensed translation.
The difficulty these days, according to Alverson, is that scanlation, or locating scanlations, has become too easy. Scanlation circles, she said, used to be based around IRC (Internet Relay Chat), and there was a fair amount of effort involved in finding and reading the material. Now, though, there are large scanlation aggregator sites, many of which provide scans directly from licensed manga. Thus, according to Alverson:
“Now you can Google the title of a manga and be reading it in your web browser within seconds, which I think has had a significant negative effect, because it has reduced the minimum price of manga to ‘free,’ at least for one segment of the market. Any time your product has been devalued to that extent, that’s a bad thing, and I have had marketers tell me they have seen a drop in sales of a title when it becomes available on a scan site (in this case, scans of the translated manga–not scanlations).”
Friedman added that, in many cases, scanlation readers, “really have no idea they are doing anything wrong. They go online, find a manga for free, and read it. When you explain that those are bootleg sites, that the company and the artist makes no money off that, they have no idea what that means.”
As she suggests, ethical standards for reading or using scanlations are both contested and fraught. As Friedman noted, “Almost every fan of manga has relied on a scanlation at some point.” Friedman actually taught herself Japanese in part so that she would no longer have to rely on scans.
Alverson acknowledged that she had in the past looked at a scanlation if she could not get a volume. She no longer does so, however, in part for ethical reasons and in part she says, “because to be honest, the quality of the scanlations I read was so bad that I couldn’t figure out what was going on, and I felt they weren’t doing the books justice.”
Other readers, however, may have different sets of concerns. “Subdee,” a manga reader and a columnist for the Hooded Utilitarian, a site I edit, explained by email that she doesn’t “really ever think about the ethics of buying versus not buying something.” She added that she will buy manga in bookstores when she sees it. However, she said she doesn’t, “believe in ‘consumer ethics’ as a general rule for all people.” She feels “it implies that people with less money to buy things are somehow less ethical, and I’m against that.”
Friedman, in contrast, argued that no one has the right to read a book without the creator’s permission. However, she also points out that Japanese companies and creators have failed to address the issue of scanlations adequately. This has in part helped illegal scanlation sites to proliferate. Friedman argues that companies and creators could partner with scanlators, licensing books and setting up direct micropayment systems so that creators would receive a small fee each time a scanlation is read. However, Friedman says publishers have been reluctant to do this, especially in a centralized way. As a result, each series has separate digital and print licensing, often requiring different software and hardware to access. In some cases, creators refuse altogether to license to digital — with the result that the only English translation available is scanlations. And if the only English translation is scanlations, that is what most people are going to read, no matter what ethical debates are happen.
Scanlations, then, present what is in some ways an extreme case, or a limit case, of piracy issues in media. Unlicensed and technically illegal scanlations are the only way to access a large amount — possibly a majority — of manga for English readers. As a result, a delivery system and a culture has been created which can be, and often is, used to pirate licensed as well as unlicensed works. There is some evidence that the illegal content has damaged the market for legal content, making it even more difficult to buy or read licensed manga, and so further encouraging the reading of scanlations.
How to address this is unclear…though clearly, shaming or scolding individuals isn’t likely to work. Rather, as Friedman says, there needs to be a change in infrastructure so that there is a legal way for fans to easily read the manga they are interested in with the permission of (and hopefully with some payment to) the creators. Digital ethics, in this case, depends not just—and not even primarily—on individual good will, but on the creation of conditions online which will make ethical action possible.
Noah Berlatsky is the editor of the comics and culture website The Hooded Utilitarian, and has written for Slate, the Atlantic, Splice Today, and the Chicago Reader, among other venues. He is currently working on a book about the first Wonder Woman comics. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.