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The Ethics of Scanlation

  • AuthorNoah Berlatsky
  • Published Friday, February 1st, 2013
  • Comments8

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

8 Responses to “The Ethics of Scanlation”

  1. Very good summation of a complex issue, Noah. A friend of mine who started in her interest in anime and manga about the same time I did recently expressed some surprise at the ease with which a person can find scans. She remembers, as I do, the days when we furtively shared text translations of popular manga series. Now, if one were to type in “read /popular series title/” into Google, the legitimate site – if there is even one – will come up well below several well-known, popular and financially successful sites that share scanlations, sometimes even scanned copies of licensed translations.

  2. Great article. It touches upon all different aspects without making any side appear as ‘the bad’. I’ll add that there are 3 types of consumers, as I perceive the whole issue.

    The first category includes the people that can’t keep money in their pockets for long and those that have high income and can spend without thinking much. These customers will buy products they don’t even need or realize they didn’t like in the first place. In this group there are the hardcore fans that will buy only what they die for. These people would buy either way, whether scanlations existed or not; with the limit that the fans would be considerably fewer, if they weren’t exposed to their fav series for free.

    The second category are people that are very careful with what they buy and don’t do purchases that don’t need. They put priorities. If I’ll depend only on the summary on the book of the manga, there are high chances I won’t buy it, since I don’t know, if it’ll be a waste of money. But if I have loved it through the scanlations and deemed it worth-buying, when I can, I’ll give the money.

    The third category contains people who are jobless and can hardly afford their basic needs. Free manga/anime don’t only provide them a quality of life they otherwise wouldn’t have at all (they’d be limited to the trash offered by TV), but also give them the incentive to buy sth they really like in the further future when their financial circumstances change.

    I know the biggest problem are the freebie leeches, but even they have chances to buy sth they want really bad. If they weren’t exposed to anything at all for free, there’s no way sone of them might become a customer. Otherwise, they are very similar to the first category of consumers but on the opposite side of the river- if they don’t want to buy, they simply won’t.

    It would be very interesting, if a survey on this matter was conducted to see, if scanlations really harm the industry or actually help it, and the low percentages of purchases is a result of other more important factors.

    • Iris – Companies have already addressed this. Vertical pointed out that sales of Black Jack dropped significantly when scanlations were posted. There comes a moment when we have to acknowledge that, for those fans who do understand that what thy are reading are illicit, moral compass comes into play.

  3. Lilac says:

    Why talk about scanlation as if it only happens to manga instead of happening to BD too?

  4. […] Piracy | Noah Berlatsky has a good analysis and roundup of opinions (including mine) on the ethics of scanlation. [Digital Ethics] […]

  5. […] Noah Berlatsky quotes both me and Erica Friedman in an interesting essay on the ethics of scanlation. […]

  6. Dan R. says:

    I think this is a nice summary of the “moral ambiguity” surrounding scanlation.

    One interesting thing I’ve discovered in my (very limited) research on this topic is that many individual scanlation groups were put off by the rise of aggregation sites. Apparently, the necessity of going to a particular group’s website or IRC channel to acquire a desired scanlated work, while less convenient and often prohibitively difficult for less technologically adept folks, actually functioned as an effective recruiting tool for scanlation groups who require a steady supply of fans who are willing to put in a great deal of free labor. Ironically, scanlation aggregation sites, which massively increased the accessibility of scanlations, actually made scanlation groups themselves easier to overlook. Aggregation sites also took away a lot of the control scanlation groups had over the distribution of the works they were translating, including the ethical measure of taking a title out of circulation once it was licensed in the US.

  7. […] Utilitarian‘s Noah Berlatsky wrote a piece on The Ethics of Scanlation for the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy. It’s a very good summation of a complex issue, […]

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