Published on January 20th, 2016 | by Thomas Maluck

Competing Against Free: Comics, Anime, and Piracy

We’ve All Been There

I have had my share of debates when I try to booktalk my library’s physical and digital collections to my community’s teens and they come back a week later to tell me they read all the best series online for free. There are several examples of how this takes place:

  • When manga anthology Shonen Jump moved from print to digital-only, I offered to log visiting teens into the app on a library iPad to read at their leisure, in addition to placing titles on hold the old-fashioned way. This was appreciated, but if they googled the name of just about any manga, they could read it in private, instantly. Even when I want to purchase a comic online, I have to wade through piracy results on the way to buying from a legitimate source.
  • I have only ever seen older adults try to pull a fast one in my library with ripping and burning CDs. Everyone else either googles “name of song + mp3” or uses a website to rip the (noticeably compromised) audio from a YouTube video of the song. My library is rich enough to afford Freegal, which is relatively easy to use and offers high-quality MP3s for permanent download. However, the moment a music search doesn’t retrieve the exact correct song, customers go back to pirating.
  • In my teen anime club, if we begin a series that has been released in full already, I can count on certain members coming back the next week to report they binge-watched the whole season online using a clearly illegal URL and claiming our club should use it too instead of CrunchyRoll (whose outreach program for libraries begs to be used for programming) or wrestling with annoying anime distributors’ licensing. It is worth mentioning that before it became the current bastion for legal streaming, CrunchyRoll used to be a piracy depot too, though I don’t mind its reformation (nor anime’s growing influence on Hulu and Netflix).

Depending on your experiences with your community and programming, these descriptions may sound like old scenarios, but they are no less current and relevant. In 2014, the Manga-Anime Guardians Project was launched, representing a joint effort between the Japanese government and production companies to go after piracy sites. Comics expert and Twitter maven Deb Aoki used Storify to share a bunch of informative and eye-opening reactions to this announcement, which includes some of the back and forth between piracy’s sins and justifications as well as insights from industry professionals.  In addition, over at Panels, Vernieda Vergara has written about The Manga Industry’s Scanlation Problem and A Beginner’s Guide To Buying Digital Manga, both of which highlight the difficulties of finding unified online storefronts for manga as well as the ease with which one can circumvent them.

Why Pay For Milk When You Can Steal The Cow For Free?

There are only so many arguments to prop up piracy: some titles, like the third of the Evangelion remakes, 3.33 You Can (Not) Redo, have been delayed for years (originally released for purchase in early 2013 in Japan, scheduled for release in February 2016 in the United States). Maybe distributors don’t provide content to a specific country or region. But then, why would Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry report that over 50% of American manga and anime fans and 12% of Japanese fans watch and read pirated works? Perhaps poverty and the digital divide play a large role, wherein fans, especially teens, are excited about dozens of series but can barely afford to buy lunch, let alone DVD/Blu-ray box sets, shelves of books, and streaming subscriptions.

Lack of money does not excuse theft, but can make the willingness to nab free downloads understandable. However, the pirates who supply others’ work are making money off the venture. “Scanlation” sites, which deal in unlicensed translations of works, make money off of advertising – not enough to afford paying royalties to all the artists whose work is being given away without their permission, but enough to turn an isolated profit. Some scanlation sites and teams may claim that they provide a more accurate or timely product than the corporate competition, and are fanning the flames of fandom to ultimately support their favorite artists and series, but without those artists’ permissions, these good intentions pave a road to exploitation. The case for same-language piracy is nonexistent, as far as I know, aside from sheer entitlement or wanting to screencap pages to look funny on the internet (guilty).

Libraries As Enablers

Consider how library circulation supports creators. When popular library items are checked out and worn down, they are often replaced with new editions, which puts money back in the publisher’s (and sometimes even the creator’s) pocket. Items made popular through circulation also have more shelf presence over time, encouraging a new audience to enjoy a beloved work and growing the local fanbase. Libraries pay notoriously high prices per ebook, and download services tend to either pay licensing fees or pay royalties out based on download percentage. Thirty-three countries use Public Lending Right programs to reimburse authors for public access of their works (Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Finland, France, Germany, Greenland, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, and Australia).

Apps like Overdrive, 3M, Hoopla, and Comics Plus offer increasingly convenient features, but I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that libraries combat internet piracy by simply throwing money at other companies to out-convenience Google. If you can convince comics fans to use their library cards to log into Hoopla instead of reading off of a dedicated imgur page, great! But libraries should also leverage their strengths of personal interactions, including customized readers advisory, staff expertise, book groups, viewing parties, and creator visits. As for how to energize your staff and public around your collections, well, there’s the whole rest of CCGC to help out with that. This article is just saying, pirates are negative influences with flimsy excuses, and librarians should be more effective preachers of fan-gospel than handing over the keys to the scanner.

About the Author

Thomas Maluck is a teen services librarian at Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina. After graduating with his MLIS in 2010 from the University of South Carolina, he knew he wanted to go into either virtual services or teen services, and found a happy medium engaging teens via technology and the endless ride that is pop culture. He has presented at various fan-culture and professional conventions about graphic novels, manga, and teen services, including the American Library Association's Annual and Midwinter conferences, DragonCon, NashiCon, and New York Comic Con. He served on YALSA's Great Graphic Novels For Teens committee for its 2014 and 2015 lists, and has published articles in Library Trends, Public Libraries, and The Hub. He currently reviews for No Flying, No Tights and regularly blogs comic recommendations on Richland Library's website here.

Back to Top ↑