Because distribution of fan-subtitled content is a violation of copyright laws in most countries, the ethical implications of producing, distributing, or watching fansubs are topics of much controversy.
The first distribution media of fansubbed material was VHS tapes. Such copies were notoriously low quality, time consuming to make, expensive to produce,(Over US$4000 in 1986) and difficult to find. A limited number of copies were made and then mailed out or distributed at local anime clubs. Fans could purchase fansubs at a modest cost or could contact clubs who would record the material on their own blank video cassettes.
However, with the advent of widespread high-speed Internet access, desktop video editing, and DVD ripping, the original process has largely been abandoned in favor of digital fansubbing (digisubbing) and electronic distribution of the resulting digisubs. This has allowed fansubbing to transform from a slow and tedious task that generates a low quality preview of an attractive show to a cheap, easy, and quick way to create a high quality and high availability alternative to an only-slightly-better quality official DVD copy, although some groups release HD quality fansubs.
However, a majority of fansubs are encoded at distinctly less than DVD quality, often featuring fewer channels of sound and less picture quality since many stem from TV recordings. Even fansubs based on Japanese DVD rips have less quality. The primary reason is file size: 175 MB, 233 MB, and 350 MB are generally treated as the "standard" sizes for a fansub file because they divide evenly into 700 MB, the size of a typical CD-R. Since the introduction of the DVD, sizes like 172 MB and 344 MB are also used, allowing 13 or 26 episodes (one season) to fit on a DVD. However, since most digisubs now use a better MPEG-4 compression, in comparison to the MPEG-2 compression used by DVDs, the difference in quality is becoming less noticeable despite the smaller filesizes.
Digisubs are now of such quality and free accessibility that the incentive to upgrade to a legitimate copy once a title is domestically licensed may be severely diminished. However, recent research by the Yale Economic Review has shown that people who download movies are no less likely to buy movies than those who do not, calling this conclusion into serious question. Economic instabilities in both the US and Japan have made it hard to gauge the precise consequences of digisubs on the commercial industry, as wellFootnotes]
In April, 2008, two Gonzo titles began free, subtitled releases simultaneously with their Japanese TV-airing counterparts on streaming websites YouTube, Crunchyroll, and BOST. Gonzo allegedly picked various members of the fansubbing community to work on the subtitles of these shows. In addition to the streaming video, viewers may pay any price they wish (greater than zero) to download a higher-quality version of the shows. It is still uncertain exactly how much success and viewership this new anime distribution model is receiving, but there has been a general reaction from the fansub community to not subtitle these shows, as the official, same-day subs seem to be what the core fansub community has always wanted. There are still fansubs out there, though the premise of these is more-so to circumvent the fee for higher-quality video, as some argue that the "higher-quality" still isn't good enough, thus the majority of these fansubs feature the Gonzo subtitles re-timed to a high definition video.
Fansub distributors (who delivered videos to fans) were usually separate from fansubbers, who did translations and produced masters. Since most members of the fansub community did not want to profit from their activities, fansubs were usually not "sold". Typically, a fan who wanted copies of a given program would mail blank VHS tapes to a fansub distributor, along with a modest payment for shipping expenses. The distributor would then record copies onto the "customer's" blank cassettes, and ship them back. Alternatively, a fansub distributor might sell copied tapes outright, but at a low price which was intended to be exactly enough to cover the cost of blank cassettes and shipping.
This style of fansubbing was quite cost-intensive for the fansubber and the distributor. The raw usually was purchased at a high price; nearly all Anime Laserdiscs (or tapes) cost more than $50, and many cost more than $100. It would not be uncommon for a $50 Laserdisc to contain just 30 minutes of video. Obtaining quality raws for a series of moderate length could cost over $1000. As well, many fansubbing groups paid professional translators in order to generate the script. Then, expensive video equipment was required: Laserdisc player, PC, genlock, and recording deck for producing the master; subsequently two or more video decks were then needed for producing distribution copies. Professional grade video hardware such as players, recorders, and editing decks was extremely expensive; easily into the thousands of dollars.
Various factors made it difficult for fansubbing groups to make releases with good video quality. The high cost of equipment forced most fansubbing groups to use less expensive but inferior quality consumer grade electronics. Even when a high quality LD source and professional grade hardware could be used, the final fansub was at best a third-generation copy. In reality, most fansubs in circulation were fourth or fifth generation copies, and were not made on professional equipment. Thus, in practice quality was usually very poor, though the actual localization and translation were closer to a professional level than those found in modern fansubs.
Once the video is in the computer it can be edited and subtitles applied with minimal or no loss of quality, compared to the playback-recording cycle required in traditional fansubbing. However, a majority of the encoding formats used generally cause some loss of quality versus the original broadcast or DVD. A relatively inexpensive PC can perform all of the manipulation necessary, without the need for expensive and complex devices such as editing decks and a genlock.
Translation is usually done solely by listening to the recording. Mostly, translators are not experienced with fansub technology and only provide a translation. While commercial releases will often have access to the scripts, fansubbers have to translate by ear. This can sometimes lead to mistakes or unclear spellings of names. The latter is most common with shows that use Western names. Because of ambiguities resulting from Japanese pronunciation and transcription of English names, names like Alice can sound or be spelled like "Arisu" - which can be misheard as any number of Alice alternatives. This can lead to different fansubbing groups using different spellings. A famous example is Winry Rockbell from Full Metal Alchemist, who was spelled as both Winry and Winly by different groups due to the equivalence of the alveolar approximant and alveolar lateral approximant in Japanese. Many groups have translation checkers to reduce the chances of letting translation errors slip through, and/or to give an alternative wording/meaning of a certain line to aid in editing an ambiguous translation. Translations for most shows are between 200 and 300 lines, though some dialogue-heavy shows may reach over 500 lines.
One alternative to using the raw Japanese file for audio translation is the use of video that has been subtitled in Chinese. China and Taiwan both has its own fansub groups that also release to the Internet. Several fansubbers are known to translate into English from the Chinese translations of the original Japanese, although this inherently reduces the accuracy of the translation because of the fact it has gone through two translations. To account for this, fansub groups using Chinese subs often have one or more Japanese translation checkers to minimize the loss of original meaning. A recent example of a show that was fansubbed entirely using Chinese subs is My-Otome; Doremi, one of the groups that worked on the show, used two native Chinese speakers for the project, although several translation checkers were on hand to verify against the original Japanese. In a similar way, English-subbed series can be retranslated into other languages.
Another, more recent, alternative with the growing availability and usage of .ts raws is translation from Japanese closed captions. The closed captions can be exported from the .ts raw into various formats, and most fansub groups use a program called C-Cats to accomplish this. This method often results in a fast, yet still fairly accurate translation due to greater ease of translating text to text, rather than audio to text. This method, however, is not as widespread, as it is still not commonplace to have a .ts raw for a show. In addition, not all .ts raws have the closed captions in them, as some raw providers remove the captions, and some Japanese broadcasting stations do not broadcast with closed captions. Groups that use closed captions from a .ts raw use the audio to verify the closed caption translation, as it cannot be guaranteed that the closed captions are flawless.
Timing can take place before or after translation, and currently Aegisub is the most popular program for this process. Many groups will "pre-time" before the translation is done, then upon completion of the translation, apply the translation to the timed lines, while at the same time doing what is called "fine timing." Fine timing often involves applying "scene timing," which is a process whereby a line's start or end point is made to correspond with a nearby scene change. This prevents "scene bleeds," which occur when every line has the same lead-in or lead-out time, resulting in some lines starting before or after a scene change.
The next process is to typeset both the text or other parts of the video which have been translated (signs, cellphone screens, etc). Many groups make viewing easier and more organized by utilizing different colors and/or styles for different conditions that the current line is under. In this way, viewers can differentiate between, for example, speech by an on-screen character, speech by an off-screen character, thoughts, announcements (e.g. train boarding notices), or any other conditions which may require differentiation. Many groups use AFX, which is the process of typesetting signs or other on-screen text onto the video such that they blend in seamlessly with or on top of the original Japanese ones. Due to the limitations of softsubs, AFX is usually encoded directly into the video. Many groups who either don't have skilled typesetters or are attempting to release as fast as possible will often just put up another subtitle line (usually at the top of the screen) with the translation of the on-screen text (e.g. "Sign: John's Pub").
Editing takes place any time after the translation has been completed. Most translators are more proficient in Japanese than they are in English, and as such their translations are often ambiguous or grammatically incorrect. It is the editor's job to make the subtitles as easily understandable to a native English speaker as the Japanese audio would be to a native Japanese speaker, while still retaining as much of the original meaning as possible. Different groups have different guidelines for editing. Some insist upon keeping as literal subtitles as possible, thus the editor would merely fix spelling and grammar mistakes, while other groups are more liberal with their editing, in which case the editor often rewrites/rewords lines in their entirety. Many groups have the translator or translation checker view the episode with the edited subtitles to ensure that the editor has not accidentally changed the meaning of a line. Fansub editors on the whole do not require high-level English education, as the dialogue lines are of course not extremely complex.
Quality control, or QC, is one of the final stages of fansubbing. Many groups do what is called a "soft QC," then encode the episode, then do what is called a "hard QC." The goal of quality checking an episode is to catch any typesetting, timing, editing, and, in the case of hard QC, encoding errors. Most groups have multiple QCers, each of whom compiles a report of errors in the episode and submits it, and any errors are then fixed. Quality checkers often are capable of doing other fansub jobs, or have some overall knowledge of the fansubbing process, as well as an eye for spotting various errors.
The subtitles are then encoded using VirtualDub or a similar program. There are several methods of subbing currently used. "Hard" subtitles, or hard subs, are encoded into the footage, and thus become hard to remove from the video without losing video quality (this can be done with a VirtualDub Filter). "Soft" subtitles, or soft subs, are subtitles applied at playback time from a subtitle datafile, either mixed directly into the video file, or in a separate file. With the correct media player or an auxiliary program, softsubs are superimposed on the footage and appear indistinguishable from hardsubs. Soft subs can also be rendered at higher resolutions, which can make for easier reading if the viewer is upscaling the file. Hard subs have traditionally been more popular than softsubs, due to a lack of player support and worries over plagiarism, but most fansub groups now release a softsub version of their releases. Since modern video media can contain multiple softsubs, some groups release fansubs with several translations into different languages, or differently styled subtitles to fit different preferences. Some groups have begun to release the opening and ending animations as separate files in order to reduce the size of each individual episode, though this introduces conflicts with player support, thus this method is not yet widespread.
In the case of hard subtitles a video editor (commonly VirtualDub) uses an AVISynth script to load the raw video file and the subtitle file (created by the translators) then the video software applies the subtitles on the video and captures video with the subtitles "burned" in.
The resulting fansub is a computer video file. In the case of soft subs, the companion sub data can be supplied as a separate file; however the complete package often now comes in a suitable media container such as Matroska. It can be copied to CD or DVD media for physical distribution, but is most often distributed using online file-sharing protocols such as viral video, BitTorrent and by file-sharing bots on IRC. This distribution is usually handled by a "distro team," composed of one or more individuals with a server or very high upload speed. This allows modern anime fans to download the finished product at no or low cost to themselves or to distributors, as the distro team usually is using servers that are not dedicated to fansub releases, or that are paid for through donations to their respective fansub group.
The internet allows for highly collaborative fansubbing, and each member of a fansub team may only complete one assigned task. Online fansubbing communities are able to release a fully subtitled episode (including increasingly elaborate karaoke with translation, kana & kanji for songs, additional remarks and translations of signs) in under 24 hours after an episode is debuted in Japan. While this kind of speed is possible, the groups that do this are known as "speedsub groups" and are for the most part notorious for fairly low-quality (in more ways than just video quality) releases. "Qualitysub groups" often take several days or even weeks to release each episode, though the casual fansub downloader often just gets whatever comes out first, thus resulting in far lower viewership for the slower, higher-quality releases. Websites such as stormberry.tv allow the selectable soft subtitle tracks to be overlaid on web videos streamed from youtube.
As of 2006, most fansubs are predominantly distributed through BitTorrent and IRC channels. Anime fansub news websites provide information about fansub releases. Because of a growing de-emphasis on CD-R or DVD-R distribution, file size standards have become less frequently followed.
An appropriate video and audio playback codec needs to be installed on the computer for proper playback. In addition, many of the video files use special multimedia container formats such OGM and Matroska. Special decoders need to be acquired for these formats as well. One main benefit of using Ogg media and Matroska multimedia containers is that it is possible to create a single file that has DVD-like features such as chapter support and alternate audio or subtitle tracks, as well as support for separate opening/ending animation files. At the same time, these multimedia containers can be demuxed back into their individual files, the individual files can be altered (for example, fixing a misspelling in the subtitles), and then remuxed back together.
Supporters of fansubbing point to an alleged positive impact it has had on the anime industry through its function as publicity. There have been several shows that were at first overlooked for US distribution, only to be picked up later when fansubs helped create a buzz about the franchise. One example of this was Azumanga Daioh, now released by ADV Films. At A-Kon 15 in the summer of 2005, an ADV founder admitted that they thought Azumanga Daioh would not be initially popular in America. ADV subsequently decided to license this title after witnessing its popularity in the fansub community. John Sirabella of Media Blasters recently engaged in a long discussion with fans on this topic, stating:
"But let's be honest, how many people download and never buy? If I have to count the number of people who come by my table and say I already downloaded that one, I would not need to release any more titles. The idea that somehow everyone is honest and only downloads to preview and later buy is a fallacy. The other problem with downloads is that you convince the borderline people to go download and not buy because it's so easily available. The people who only download will always download and never buy but it is that bigger audience who then believe "downloads are okay, everyone does it." ...that is the problem and what we are trying to prevent. This is what happened to the music industry..."It is ok to download; everyone does it."
The role fansubs have played in popularizing anime titles received official recognition by at least two major distributors. In the promotional video announcing the American license of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Kadokawa Pictures USA and Bandai Entertainment specifically thanked fansub watchers and asked them to purchase the official release. This is the first instance of a Japanese company admitting and accepting, but not necessarily supporting the well-intended piracy among fans.
Detractors of fansubbing counter by pointing to an alleged "dark side" of fansubbing. While many fansubbing groups stop distributing a show once it is licensed in North America, some continue long afterwards. However, this goes against the basic principles of ethical fansubbing. If a show is very far along when it is licensed (Bleach, for example, was in the 70s in episode numbers when it was licensed, and Naruto had over 150), then some fansubbers will continue to release later episodes. Again, this may negatively affect the domestic licensor. Companies are working to undermine these dubious fan efforts, as with TV airings, a company can successfully dub over 100 episodes in as little as a two year period. For example, Funimation is working to release their uncut, unedited episodes of One Piece in multiple formats, releasing earlier season sections alongside boxsets more recent episodes in attempt to meet fan demand. VIZ's boxset format releases for Naruto and Prince of Tennis also attempt to deliver larger chunks of a series to fans in a quick and efficient manner.
Longer productions like Naruto and InuYasha are also known to be distributed by fansubbers even after a license is announced. Even after the official licensing of Naruto that came around the release of episode 124, fansubbing groups still distributed the show. Cartoon Network is now airing episodes (up to episode 117 currently) while fansub groups release up to episode 245 and beyond. While it is still true that native language dubs of shows are usually more popular, especially for anime geared at younger audiences like Naruto, an estimated 350,000 people download the current Japanese episode every week online. Naruto and InuYasha were released on uncut subtitled DVDs, though the fansubs continued mostly due to the large difference between the number of episodes released officially and the number of episodes fansubbed. The distribution of InuYasha fansubs remains dubious however, due to the series completion in the domestic market, the entire series to be completely released on domestic DVD by late 2007.
Shows licensed by 4Kids, for example, are considered by some to be "not truly licensed," due to the company's refusal to release unedited versions of their properties. Fansubbers have been the source of subtitled versions of several 4Kids shows, including Tokyo Mew Mew, One Piece, and Yu-Gi-Oh!. This overlooks that 4Kids attempted an uncut bilingual release of Shaman King and Yu-Gi-Oh in the mid 2000s, releasing a handful of volumes of each title in the format, as discussed by Alfred Kahn in an interview with ANN. Kahn stated that "The market for them just isn't as large as the one for the cut version", pointing out that their sales might not have met 4Kids' needs or expectations to continue them.
Past market reactions have shown that time might be better spent petitioning 4Kids for a bilingual release, and supporting the uncut release of former 4Kids licenses like One Piece, to show them there is a market for such titles. An older example is Sailor Moon, which was initially licensed by DiC. After fan demand showed there was a market for the title, uncut, unedited versions of the show, and Pioneer successfully release the Sailor Moon Movies in a subtitled VHS format in 1999, followed by dubbed versions and bilingual DVDs. This was quickly followed by the release of Sailor Moon S and Sailor Moon Supers, which both received complete unedited releases on VHS and DVD from Geneon. In 2003, the commercial subtitles of the first two seasons appeared, released by ADV Films under license by DIC, completing the uncut release that many fans never believed would be possible. Later, ADV's license of the original Sailor Moon had expired and was not renewed despite honorable sales figures. However, this is less due to lack of interest, and moreso due to issues with Japanese rights holders as ADV discussed when announcing their boxsets going out of print.
Despite this, this is an example that sometimes, companies do make owning the complete series of a given show impossible. Shows like Sailor Moon and Fist of the North Star have only been partially released in the United States. As mentioned above, Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon Sailor Stars, the final series in Sailor Moon, has never been released in the United States; and Fist of the North Star saw an initial short release of the long series, stopping production at episode 36, as Manga Entertainment had only licensed this particular season of the anime. Other series that have partial releases include Air Master, Slam-Dunk and Bt'x. These marketing concerns for distribution companies create a gray operating zone for fansubbers. While on the one hand it is true that products like Fist of the North Star are released and licensed in America, only part of the series is available. A fan willing to buy the whole series would find it impossible. However, the lack of support of these products, which fansubs can play a part in, is often a factor in the decision to not continue releasing a series. The costs of licensing more of the series might not be possible without a successful release of the initial offering.
Critics of fansubs assert that digital distribution hurts the anime industry as a whole. However, some argue it has increased anime's fanbase and allowed copyright holders to "make a tidy sum from fans prepared to 'spend thousands of dollars on one show'" both in Japan and America. As evidenced by Sirabella's comments, this isn't always the case. Another problem is the use of putting downloaded fansubs onto bootleg DVDs. Many Hong Kong Bootleggers have begun slapping domestically created fansubs, including the warnings that they're not to be sold, onto their anime releases, further contributing to the piracy aspect of fansubs. The availability of internet fansubs has led to greater piracy than the limitations of VHS fansubs.
However, since fansubbing is not limited to anime, the legal status of other fansubs, such as Tokusatsu or other live action Japanese series, is far less clear. It could be reasoned that since these shows will never be licensed outside of Japan, due to their nature (The Super Sentai series is a special case, because Major elements of the series are radically altered and adapted into the Power Rangers series, thus is never really "licensed"), that these series are ethically fine to fansub.
During the early days of the Internet, it was difficult for fansubbing groups to get the attention of their target audience. Even during the early to mid 1990s, groups still had to charge a nominal fee (usually $5 to $10 at most) for a VHS and shipping charges to get the anime to its destination. Many people in the general public were not willing to trust relatively unknown internet businesses, especially during the primitive days of internet security. Most of the American and UK anime distribution companies were formed during the early 1990s, and had little competition from such amateur groups. Some companies even formed out of fansubbing circles. However, as the internet grew in availability and speed, fansub groups were able to host and distribute fansubs online easily. The advent of Bittorrent as opposed to IRC has been pointed to as a key ingredient in the current fansubbing scene. It has been argued that this prompted fans to ignore official releases altogether, and some websites started charging for easier downloading rates. The development of new software and its newfound availability made it very simple to copy, subtitle, distribute, and play back fansubs, cutting into what DVDs offer, and their sales.
Many anime shows make their debut outside of Japan's shores in electronic format, and it is rare that a popular anime will go without fansubs. Recently, this has also applied to the tokusatsu fandom due to the fact fansubs are actually being done for Super Sentai, Kamen Rider, Ultraman, and various Daikaiju Movies which were badly dubbed over the decades. In addition, J-Horror and J-Drama, as well as other Asian Shows have been fansubbed as many people are becoming more and more curious about Asian Cinema and breaking away from the Kung Fu, Samurai, Giant Monsters films that so many people were familiar with prior to fansubbing.
Frankly, I find it kind of flattering, not threatening[...] To be honest, I believe that if the music industry had used downloading and file sharing properly, it would have increased their business, not eaten into it. And, hey, if you get 2,000 fans saying they want a book you've never heard of, well, you gotta go out and get it.This belief was challenged when in December 2004 Media Factory, a Japanese copyright holder, directly requested that their works be removed from download sites, and since then numerous other companies such as Nippon TV have followed suit in the wake of the appearance of fansubs on YouTube.
On December 7, 2004, a Tokyo law firm representing Media Factory sent letters and e-mails to the anime BitTorrent directory AnimeSuki and fansub groups Lunar Anime and Wannabe Fansubs requesting that they halt the fansubbing and hosting of all current and future fansubbing productions. AnimeSuki and Lunar Anime complied, and shortly after, other fansub groups such as Solar and Shining Fansubs followed suit. Despite the request, Wannabe Fansubs and a handful of other fansubbing groups continued to produce fansubs of MFI anime series. To date, this has been one of the few legal actions taken by a Japanese anime company against fansubbing.
After MFI's request was made public, only Genshiken, whose fansubs had been completed before the notifications, and Kimi ga Nozomu Eien were licensed in the US. MFI's other major projects, including Pugyuru and Akane Maniax, were not picked up by American distributors. The lack of buzz that surrounded these titles has been linked by fansub supporters to MFI's suppression of fan distribution. They argue that by cutting off this means of "free advertisement," MFI has alienated fans who would normally buy their products after they were licensed and kept the shows from being as widely exposed as they might otherwise be. The end result, say fansub supporters, is a reduced interest from American anime companies and a loss of revenue for the studio. However, in August, 2006, School Rumble was finally licensed by Funimation thanks to popularity of the series garnered from its manga release by Del Rey. It took the series over 2 years to be licensed, which is normal for anime licenses around 2002. Since MFI's legal action against fansubbers, their number of licenses secured is below the industry average.
MFI's actions are sometimes used as an example in the fansub debate as a reason why other Japanese companies should not pursue similar injunctions. However, their titles are still being licensed. The anime series based on Emma and Aria were both licensed in 2008, and Area 88, Gankutsuou, Kurau Phantom Memory, Noein, Shura no Toki, and UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie were all licensed after the legal action in 2004.
Recently, a few titles such as Street Fighter Generations were prelicensed, meaning that they were released simultaneously in Japan and North America, in an effort to negate the need for fansubs. However, some fansubbing of such titles still occurs, as some people prefer fansubs over commercial releases.
Fansub opposers claim that Japanese licensers have reportedly grown discontent with fansubbers because the ease of access with which their works are obtained has begun to affect foreign licensers' willingness to license a series, as evidenced by the Western market's sharp drop in new acquisitions in 2005. They also suggest that anime fans in Japan have reportedly begun to turn to English fansubs which often appear days after a show's release, affecting sales in their home market. Indeed, Japanese companies have banded together to form JASRAC, a copyright holders rights company, which has frequently taken YouTube to task for providing content which domestic Japanese viewers often use, which includes fansubs, as seen on their official site. A growing anti-fansub stance has been taken by US distributors, as seen in Geneon and ADV's comments at the State of the Industry Panel at Anime Boston, as well as recent comments by Matt Greenfield of ADV films at Anime Central:
"Answering a fan question on how ADV perceives the threat and challenge presented by fansubbers, Matt answered that while fan subtitling is hurting the industry both in the US and in Japan, "the industry has to learn and adapt to new technology, and has to find ways to work around it."
In Singapore, anime distributor Odex has been actively tracking down and sending legal threats against internet users in Singapore since 2007. These users have allegedly downloaded fansubbed anime via the BitTorrent network. Court orders on ISPs to reveal subscribers' personal information have been ruled in Odex's favour, leading to several downloaders receiving letters of legal threat from Odex and subsequently pursuing out-of-court settlements for at least S$3,000 (US$2,000) per person, the youngest person being only 9 years old. These actions were considered controversial by the local anime community and have attracted criticisms towards the company, as they are seen by fans as heavy-handed.