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Geek Media Meets Law Reviews

I'm glad to see that Jordan Hatcher's article Of Otaku and Fansubs: A Critical Look at Anime Online in Light of Current Issues in Copyright Law is getting some attention. (Hat tip to Prof. Solum.) It's precisely the thing I like to see in articles by students: someone writing about an issue that raises a narrow legal issue on a topic the author is obviously passionate about. Fansubs (Japanese animation translated and subtitled by fans) cast a different light on some of the central battles in the copyright wars. I strongly recommend this article to anyone considering the ramifications of the current RIAA or MPAA lawsuits. For instance:

Does our present level of copyright foster the cultural goods we'd like to see? As Geoffery Manne put it, the ultimate question with copyright law is Do we have the optimal amount of Bainbridge? The standard (Bainbridge) answer is to say that if we don't have strong copyright protections, we'll suffer a shortage of production. But the history of fansub anime belies this contention. If it weren't for fansubbing, the anime community in the U.S. is unlikely to be anywhere near what it is today. In its early days, fansubs were what allows a customer base to grow beyond a narrow range of people who could speak Japanese. Violation of the law allowed the market to form, and now Disney spends millions to get the rights to Miyazaki. It is possible that if we had weaker copyright protections, we'd have just as much creativity, but it would be different. As always with economics, the tricky issue is finding the elephant that isn't in the room: certainly our copyright law provides us with quite a lot of bland romantic comedies and ticky-tacky sitcoms. With a weaker and modified copyright law, do we really think all television would become Manhattan Neighborhood Network?

Does copyright law as it stands promote quality and access?: As far as quality goes, I've said before that fansubs are often better translations than their commercial counterparts. This isn't surprising, really, as they're translated by people who love the original and want to share the experience they had when they first saw the work. It's hard to say that if we didn't allow translation rights to movies or videos, we'd have poorer translations.

What about access? Anyone who's ever watched TV in England and the United States knows that copyright law respects corporate priorities over user utility. All the DVDs I purchased in the UK? They're virtually useless, not because of differing technical standards (as would be the case with VHS tapes), but because they're "region-locked." Who cares if I already paid my money, I can't use the discs. And of course, some people use Bittorrent to download TV shows simply because copyright negotiations have prevented the show they want to watch from being shown (or even purchasable) in their country of origin. (See, e.g. or until recently Lost.) What good is copyright law if pursuit of profits means that intellectual goods remain completely unavailable?

In any event, anime may be a geek media phenomenon, but the legal implications are not. The article is well worth a read.

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