43. Why Do Scanlations Persist?


Fukuzawa-sensei laying down the law, now that he’s lost his spot on the 10,000 yen note

This post really ought to be about my new manga transdub project, but it appears I’m back on my bullshit, because the whole discourse surrounding the “wrongness” of scanlation that I constantly see on social media, frankly, drives me bonkers, in part because people on “either side” of the issue never seem to be asking the useful questions or speaking from a shared set of facts. The anti-scanlation crowd is largely made up of people who either are professional translators or work in publishing, in other words those who directly benefit from the existing copyright regime. If I were being more fair, perhaps I would describe this group as those who have firsthand knowledge of the negative impact of scanlation in the manga distribution economy. On the other side we have the, if not pro-scanlation, then at least scanlation agnostic who speak almost solely from the perspective of readers and consumers in a market economy. In other words, the “two sides” are arguing from two completely different realities.

And I say manga distribution economy, because whether the two sides like it or not, the licit and “illicit” trades in translated Japanese comics are not wholly distinct entities. They are, in fact, inextricably linked to one another. The reason for this is not specific to the manga/anime context, so it’s worthwhile to examine certain analogues and see what we might tease ought from those histories as well. Part of the reason, I feel, that the scanlation pro/con discourse keeps spinning its wheels around the same arguments is that the terms are far too narrow. It’s almost as if the players involved tacitly assume that manga/anime are a special case, when nothing could be further from the truth. If that happens to be the one fact the “two sides” do share, then it’s no wonder the whole conversation is irrecoverably poisoned.

What seems lacking to me, then, is some good old-fashioned descriptive analysis. What happened historically, what is it similar to, and how did the broader context of a market economy drive those developments, so we can get at the basic question of why scanlations exist at all and why they persist, despite the existence of a now robust trade in licensed manga translations. That’s all I’m going for here and why I want to approach things from a historical materialist perspective. Now, I realize that the pro/con discourse is interlarded with all sorts of moralizing arguments (some of which I address in a previous piece), but I’d like to sequester those ethical concerns, at least for the time being, in the hopes of avoiding the kneejerk reactions that are so common in this kind of debate. Admittedly, I have priors on this issue, and anyone who’s familiar with my writing knows that I think the existing copyright regime is utter bullshit and exists solely to protect the interests of large, multinational corporations. That said, it’s my hope that by focusing on the descriptive, we can move this conversation toward more productive ends. It’s a small hope, but things are what they are.

What is a Scanlation?

So, while I want to focus mostly on the political economy of emerging and developing markets, it occurs to me that I should define what a scanlation is for those who may come to this piece from a non-comics or even non-publishing background. In one sense, a scanlation is a type of translation, most commonly of an original Japanese comic (though the network has broadened to other languages as well), that is either scanned in its raw form (classically one of the telephone book weekly/monthly anthologies like Shonen Jump) or acquired digitally in some manner. The work is then translated, the images cleaned up in the case of scanning from an anthology’s cheap newsprint, and the pages are copyedited with the text the translator and perhaps an editor provide. This is then uploaded to any of a number of compilation sights that come and go at the whim of legal action or are distributed directly by the translation group through something like bittorrent nowadays or by newsgroups back in ancient times. In other words, the translation and distribution process, at least for the more conscientious scanlation groups, is not unlike the publishing world itself, except on a much smaller scale and with a more anarchistic, DIY ethos. It’s important to bear this latter bit in mind for the ways scanlation ties into other DIY cultural formations, such the amateur printing phenomenon of the late 19th and early 20th century, the fanzines of early science fiction fandom, and the zine culture of the late ’80s and ’90s that fed into alternative, typically leftist counter-cultural movements like Riot Grrrl.

Another way to think of scanlation, though, is as a bootleg, and in this way the distribution economy for scanlations is not unlike its sister economy for the distribution of fandubs of Japanese animation nor the broader global trade in “counterfeit” goods. A scanlation, then, is not some special case but rather an ordinary commodity that carries with it a certain cultural currency. It’s not unlike the VHS tapes of Hollywood movies you could buy in Chinatown, when I was a kid, or the .rom files of console and arcade games we’d play through emulators on our PCs in college. It’s not unlike the knockoff Hermes handbags that petit bourgeois aspirants can buy in Hong Kong or the generic iPhone parts the tech savvy might find in Guangzhou. More to the point, it’s not unlike the comic book characters Japanese artists would regularly ripoff in the immediate postwar era, before Japan’s “economic miracle” was fully underway and before the government signed onto the Berne Convention, which sets the floor for copyright terms in most of the “developed” world.

What I’m trying to get at is that scanlations, like all bootlegs, are creatures of an economy that has yet to fully develop into and appropriate the standards of modern, global capitalism. Scanlations came into existence in one of capitalism’s many blindspots or, if you prefer, its willful indifference to market conditions that fail to conform to its priorities or expectations. Let’s be honest, for the entirety of the ’80s and most of the ’90s, the Japanese publishing industry had no interest in an Anglophone market for its media products. What few things did get translated and officially licensed were largely the result of the herculean efforts of people like Fred Schodt, who not only did all of the work but had to cajole Japanese publishers into agreeing. As a result, mostly what we got on both the anime and manga fronts were fan translations that were disseminated through any number of crappy means. With anime it was mostly the copying and recopying of VHS tapes, while manga were photocopied into unreadability. Most of this was on a fairly small scale and remained within the localized networks of fan clubs at high schools and colleges.

With the advent of the internet, those distribution networks that were once merely local, often hand to hand among friends, suddenly became more global, more mediated, and less interpersonal. The first two of those conditions were more pronounced, for, while dubs and scans were being disseminated among individuals who had never met in real life, this interchange was the pretext for fomenting a kind of community that theretofore hadn’t really existed. This was roughly the same time (late ’90s, early ’00s) that we see an explosion in the size of anime and general Japanese pop culture conventions, as well as the explosion in the size of various comic cons. People were converging and coalescing, sometimes in person, sometimes merely online, into a community that not only had a shared interest in Japanese popular culture (so-called fandom) but were also active participants in a bootleg distribution economy. Often the fandom and redistribution went hand in hand. For while you could pick up media files through impersonal, file sharing services like Kazaa or Limewire (or late bittorrent), much of the distribution was done through IRC channels. There, not only did people discuss their favs in various channels, while cuing downloads, but certain benefits were accorded to those who shared as well as “leeched,” often in the form of faster downloads or access to channels where rarer media were being shared.

On the one hand, I think most would agree that manga or anime or J-pop or what have you are a different kind of commodity from basic material goods like, say, Honey Nut Cheerios. Whether you enjoy eating HNC has little relevance for your status within society or within a given subculture. Your parents might prefer you eat regular Cheerios, but you won’t be ostracized for failing to do so. However, status within a fan community is predicated upon your knowledge of and affection for Japanese popular media, therefore consumption of those media is a prerequisite for participation. Moreover, given the rampant toxicity that often dwells in such communities, you face the very real prospect of ostracism for failing to be sufficiently in the know. Kinda liking Naruto or Sailor Moon might get you in the door, but your ability to persevere in those spaces is dependent upon developing an encyclopedic knowledge of silly ninjutsu or being able to perform each sailor’s transformation sequence on cue. One of my favorite comics, OL shinkaron (OL Evolution) describes this phenomenon as “deepening,” where an initial interest suddenly descends into outright obsession and therefore into the desire to consume ever more complicated and genre specific commodities. As with deepening, there is both a light and a dark side to this social phenomenon. One might be a shitbag gatekeeper, or you might find a lifelong friend you never would have known, if it weren’t for your shared interest.

But with the political economy of how manga distribution emerged in the ’80s and radically changed in the late ’90s, I would argue that scanlations are much more than mere containers for the currency of cultural capital. Scanlation itself, as a mode of dissemination, is deeply embedded in the history of Anglophone fandom and therefore in its culture. You can’t simply tease out scanlation and its networks of distribution as something apart from the community that developed into the market that Japanese publishers and their mostly American counterparts tried to exploit in the latter stages of its development. They evolved together, and the licensed publishers were a latecomer to the scene. For Japanese publishers only started to take serious interest once the Anglophone market had shown signs it could grow to the scale that they were used to. Sure, Viz was founded in ’86, but it didn’t take on its current form until 2002, when Shueisha became a joint owner, and both Shueisha and Shogakkan started releasing translations of their properties exclusively through this venture. However, by then, the “illicit” or rather unlicensed market had already been well-established and completely integrated into the community that would make up manga’s most dedicated English language consumers.

I realize there’s a value judgment implicit in this statement, but you cannot escape the fact that Japanese publishers and their American surrogates sought to exploit a market they themselves neither created nor had any interest in fostering until it was well underway. In those heady early days of licensed translations, the Japanese publishers wouldn’t even provide the digital files they themselves possessed to companies they were licensing to. Quite often English language publishers would have to work from printed copies of the manga they purchases themselves and would dismantled (by cutting the spine), scan, and retouch in a manner eerily similar to the process employed by scanlation groups. And for as much as anti-scanlation advocates like to emphasize the parasitic effect scanlations have on the publishing industry as a whole, it’s also worth noting this parasitism works both ways. As Casey Brienza notes in her excellent, if often frustrating, Manga in America:

Plenty of research is… conducted online. Editors will, for example, hang out on online discussion forums to see what sorts of titles fans are talking about. […] Also, because many manga industry people cannot read Japanese, “research” in many cases is actually a euphemism for reading illegal scanlations, fan translations of manga published online. It is a practice that is ubiquitous throughout the industry, from the smallest of start-ups to the oldest and largest of established houses. One editor who has worked for multiple companies remarked to me that the dependence upon scanlations to research new material is in fact greater at his current employer than his old one because a smaller proportion of the company’s employees are bilingual. In fact, some publishers will even go so far as to systematically data mine highly trafficked fan sites, such as Baka Updates. (p. 89)

Brienza’s description of the licensing landscape is beyond the scope of this essay, but I strongly suggest you read it in its entirety. For what emerges from Brienza’s own descriptive analysis is a licensed manga world that is far from pure. To be sure, there are publishers who reject licensing certain books, because of the existence of a scanlation, and a number of Japanese artists have publicly stated their irritation over the widespread existence of bootleg media. But this is far from the whole picture. Just as the emergence of an Anglophone market for manga is inextricably tied to the “illicit” modes of distribution that facilitated it, so too is the licensed manga industry deeply dependent upon scanlations and the networks that stem from them to make better informed business decisions. Failure to recognize this fact is perhaps one reason why Japanese publishers’ most common strategy for combating the continued existence of scanlations, that is take down notices and civil litigation, has mostly been to no effect. For scanlation is deeply entrenched not only in the culture of manga’s primary Anglophone consumers, but in the very industry whose interests it purports to represent.


I’d imagine that when I say “English speaking nation,” most people think of the UK or somewhere in North America… maybe even somewhere in Oceania. The more cosmopolitan among us might be thinking of an African country such as Nigeria or Uganda. But the largest Anglophone nation in the entire world is, in fact, India, and like most Anglophone nations it comes by its English as a result of the once global reach of the British Empire. I myself speak English directly as a result of Britain’s imperial expansionism, since you only have to go back to the mid 19th century in my family tree to find a preponderance of ancestors who spoke no English at all. People don’t often think of the U.S. as post-colonial, in part because it exists at the end of a cycle that countries like India have only set out on. India has no official language, in part because it’s a not terribly well ordered assemblage of various ethnic and therefore various language groups. English serves an important function, then, not just as a linguistic holdover from the days of the Raj, but as a lingua franca that at least holds together an administrative layer in Indian society, if not the body politic, and gives educated Indians easier access to a global market where English, because it was one of the three major imperial languages (alongside Spanish and French), is a useful tool for conducting transnational business. English is so endemic to Indian society that the nation has its own English dialect that is, in large part, incomprehensible to native speakers from the West.

As China’s red hot economic growth has cooled to a more lukewarm state, the glut of global capital has turned its eyes to India as the next great site of expansive growth, and with that have come a number of international tensions, especially when it comes to which intellectual property (IP) rules India is meant to play by. A Global IP Center (read: U.S. Chamber of Commerce) report from 2017 chides India for its lax patent laws and general indifference to enforcement of IP laws like copyright. India, like most nations, is a signatory to the Berne convention, and so technically has the same enforcement responsibilities as, say, France or the U.S., though term lengths differ there. However, not all nations have felt the need to enforce international law as strictly as the U.S. or E.U. In fact, the nations the GIPC report takes to task are mostly in the developing world. No one in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce seems to recall that when the United States was in a similar position, its own copyright laws treated foreign works with complete indifference. In fact, the original U.S. copyright law from 1790 created an explicit exception for foreign works. One imagines that as the nascent States separated themselves from the warm bosom of the British Empire, this exception was created as a means to rapidly accelerate economic development.

Now India finds itself in a peculiar bind, where the nation states that have already benefited from a lax appreciation of international law and its rules of commerce seek to impose restrictions upon Indian economic development that they were never subject to. In other words, at the same time the West and its mountains of capital demand that India become what China once was, a “good investment,” the West also seeks to deny access to the very tools that would help India become the kind of participant in global markets that Western powers want it to be. A similar tale could be told about China. For years, American and European business interests complained about lax enforcement of IP rights by the Chinese government, though never so loudly as to threaten their access to cheap industrial labor or to the PRC’s willful indifference to the environmental devastation wrought by rapid industrial expansion.

I didn’t just pluck this example out of the air. There are obvious parallels between the way global capital treats emerging markets and what we see in the more limited context of scanlation and the manga economy. Bootleg economies typically emerge where 1) the market is more a ground up phenomenon arising from the demands of consumers, and 2) where access to the very resources that would help that market develop more rapidly have been arbitrarily restricted. The demand, then, that an “illicit” economy suddenly play by rules imposed upon it by a much more powerful and heretofore uninterested player, might strike those who were there from the get-go as an unnecessary impediment. In fact, the licensed manga publishing industry has to pull a Janus act just like the multinational corporations that seek to exploit emerging markets they had no hand in creating. Out of one mouth, they must loudly and publicly decry the infringement of their IP rights, while the other mouth salivates over the profit-making opportunities this “illicit” behavior makes possible.

The other important takeaway from this digression into global political economy is how the potential Anglophone readership for any given manga is far broader than the Anglo-American market presumed by licensed publishers. Just because a title has been licensed and translated into English doesn’t mean it’s meaningfully accessible to readers in Africa or the subcontinent or the South Pacific, all places where English is commonly spoken but have imperfect entrée into the global markets where licensed manga are sold. It’s easy to scold white Westerners who likely possess the resources to acquire licensed copies of manga translations but refuse to do so. Yet, what do we have to say about a girl in South Africa reading Kuzumi-kun on MangaDex? Or a Brazilian boy pumping his fists to the latest Portuguese scan of Boku no Hero Academia? I have answers of my own to those questions, which you can likely guess, but I leave them open here as examples of the broader points of interest that really ought to be involved in the pro/con scanlation debate.

Derivative Work

Though I disagree with the scanlation scolds, I’d still like to believe that they are arguing in good faith. In fact, I’d imagine their perspective is not unlike the VERY ONLINE fan who, nevertheless, can’t quite articulate what they perhaps understand only viscerally, the difference being that these mostly translators and publishers have a very different community to which they are attached and therefore responsible. Sure, you could point out how, as professionals within a particular industry, their economic interests are closely tied to the legal regime that international copyright laws impose. But that’s too simple of an explanation. At the risk of being publicly berated again, I would note how someone like Rachel Thorn is personal friends with many of the artists they translate, and so the grievances of those artists is something personally and immediately felt. It’s endemic to who they are as a translator and cannot be easily or even reasonably separated out. When Thorn complains about about the harms of scanlation, it’s not just a personal grudge but the interests of a community that are being represented.

I suppose what I find most frustrating about how the “two sides” talk past each other is that there is a shared interest underlying the public enmity. The kinds of works that Thorn translates nowadays, mostly canonical shojo artists, were historically underrepresented in what gets translated for an English readership. Their efforts have largely gone toward passion projects that try to expand the availability in translation of a broader range of Japanese comic texts. It seems to me that those who consume scanlations want this as well. And so, stepping away again from the hypothetical entitled adolescent upon whom so much of the pro/con debate is centered, it’s useful to look at the other ways in which scanlations are used. For myself, in my own teaching, I have translated unlicensed works and presented them in class to, for example, show what kinds of things you might find floating around Pixiv. Of course, I’m very careful to stay fully in the realm of what might be considered fair use, but I know other scholars who have used scanlations posted online, precisely because “what’s translated” is not a terribly representative sample of what you get in the history of Japanese comics. It was only somewhat recently that a number of Garo artists were made available in licensed editions, even though their work is constantly referenced in critical and historiographic scholarship. Some artists, like Shirato Sanpei, still aren’t well represented, and so the temptation to turn to scanlation to fill out historical exemplars is a rather strong one.

Of course, scanlations mostly don’t exist for this reason, but clearly there is a need present that the range of licensed materials in print simply fails to satisfy. Those adamantly opposed to scanlation might encourage people to lobby publishers for licensed translations, but that takes time, and in the meanwhile a scanlation satisfies that need, if in a not entirely licit manner. Moreover, many public libraries are now expanding their comic holdings, but having worked in libraries myself, I can say with some certainty that not all libraries are created equal. The manga bootleg economy continues on, mostly unabated, because of capitalism’s blindspots, those spaces it can’t effectively conceptualize and therefore cannot quite, ahem, capitalize on.

Thus, derivative works find themselves in a difficult position, at once satisfying a need that the “original,” in itself cannot but also dependent upon that original for their very existence. There is labor invested in derivative works that producers of the original cannot meaningfully lay claim to but nevertheless, as the result of a global legal regime, can assert their will upon. Derivative works expand the limits of who that original creation can reach but are themselves constrained by the arbitrary limits that the purveyors of the original impose. Those who create derivative works, absent some official imprimatur, do so at their own peril, that the object of their adoration might loudly decry the very existence of such works… or not. For many derivative works, despite their “illegality,” are widely tolerated, due in no small part to a simple cost/benefit calculus.

Fan art is, by and large, a technical copyright (or trademark) violation, unless, of course the design intent is clearly parodic or critical in nature. Most of the items you find for sale on Etsy are neither critique nor parody, though. But, as Johnathan Bailey notes,

despite a relatively strong legal position, lawsuits over fan fiction and fan art are extremely rare. This is especially odd considering that many of the rightsholders who are the most common target of fan creations are also among those most aggressive at stopping other infringement of their work.

His explanation for this seeming contradiction is pretty straightforward:

[It’s] the cost of going to war with fans. Being litigious with creators of fan art can be very costly, not just in terms of court costs, but in terms of backlash. No creator wants to sue their fans, especially when the fans aren’t earning revenue, and as such most creators will tolerate fan fiction and art under most circumstances.

Of course, there are plenty of examples of not-for-profit derivative works that draw the ire of an original’s creators, and for-profit derivatives that never do. Even where fan creations are used to make money, we see the same cost of going to war with a community who make up the primary consumer base for media commodities. Nintendo, with the inception of its Creators Club in 2015, has tried to control what streamers and Youtubers can do with Nintendo games, at least those who try to monetize their videos. Not only has there been loud public criticism of this arguably mild crackdown on reviews and Let’s Plays, but Youtube’s collaboration with Nintendo to take an additional cut of the ad revenue that goes to content creators has seen something of an exodus from Youtube to Twitch, where no such arrangement exists.

The primary cost of asserting one’s perfectly legal rights is the possibility of a very real public backlash. This is something very difficult to communicate to those who come at copyright issues from the perspective of “I made it, I own it, therefore I have absolute right to determine how the work is dispensed with.” It’s hard to demonstrate how publication is a social, not just a personal, phenomenon and that even when you’re within your legal rights, there can be social costs to pushing too aggressively. This is especially true when it’s clearly at the expense of a community, a social formation that capitalist enterprises all too often regard as a mere mass of existing or potential consumers. Whoever made the decision at Nintendo to go down this path probably thinks they’re simply protecting their IP. I imagine it never occurs to them that simply leaving things be might actually be an improvement on their market position. Any indie developer can tell you that catching the attention and devotion of a popular streamer grossly outweighs any loss in “giving away” the content of a game.

With scanlation, there is an important question of scale. Your average fan artist making a few bucks on Etsy probably will never draw the ire of a massive media conglomerate, because the potential “loss” simply isn’t worth the legal expense. However, when Japanese publishers and their overseas surrogates started going after scanlation in earnest, it was already a massive enterprise. By the time publishers had abandoned sending piecemeal cease and desist notices, the older, more interpersonal distribution networks for manga and anime bootlegs had largely been replaced by aggregators with little concern for the ethical quandaries, such as they are, of scanlator groups. These aggregation sites were making substantial revenue from ads, at least they were before Google squeezed the ad economy into a raw deal for those sites without direct sponsorship arrangements. Yet, despite the success publishers had in taking down sites like Mangafox, the phenomenon persisted (even MF did, though in altered form). Publishers had finally banded together and devoted substantial legal resources to the cause, but it was all a losing battle.

Market vs. Community / Market as Community

The question that rarely gets asked in these circumstances is why are scanlations so intractable, why do people keep coming back to them, despite all the effort directed toward tamping them down? One answer, looking at it from a sociological perspective, is that as a social formation, scanlations and their attendant economy engendered and continue to facilitate a community of like-minded individuals who wouldn’t have found each other, if it weren’t for the mutual interest that these scanlations give them access to. To be sure, there are likely better or simply less legally dubious means of providing this broad access (libraries, for example), but the scanlation economy is what did accomplish it historically, when no one else was interested. And the licensed manga distribution economy, frankly, still doesn’t do this very well. Publishers don’t really contribute to the social formation all that well, and it’s even arguable whether they’re doing an effective job with the commodity itself, even if, by and large, licensed translations are far less clunky than their scanlation counterparts.

From another, more strictly economic perspective, certain aspects of the scanlation economy have engendered consumer demands that the licensed distribution economy was ill-equipped to deal with. Even when publishers did finally recognize these demands, they generally approached them with far too much hesitation and, constrained by the “we own it” logic, were always outpaced by ongoing developments in the scanlation economy. The most obvious example is digital distribution, something endemic to scanlation but which licensed publishers for the longest time always hamfisted. The consumer demand was clear: digital distribution simultaneous with release in Japan. If publishers had approached this aggressively rather than meekly, they might have noticed how they had an obvious advantage over the scanlators: access to the original even before it went live in Japan. If they were to translate on site with translators they hired themselves, rather than farming it out after the fact, they could easily scoop the scanlators, especially if offered through a subscription service at a price point analogous to what you see in Japan.* But that would require an investment in and concern for international markets that Japanese publishers never had.

At this point, the difference in the history of anime distribution might be instructive. Anime are now widely available on streaming platforms–where the digital manga offerings are still rather limited–including one platform that at its inception was mostly made up of fansubbed content, namely Crunchyroll. Media companies seem to have forgiven–or, at least, forgotten–its historical transgressions, because Crunchyroll offers something the media companies themselves never took the time to build and so, perhaps, saw the easier path as entering into a partnership with the repentant sinners.

I have to admit, though, as an anti-capitalist, I don’t really care whether these companies do the market well and am indifferent to whether they make peace with presumed sins of the past or continue to demand penance. It’s the community aspect, the social formation, that concerns me far more, and I just don’t think, given the ever-expanding global copyright regime we now live under, that these companies even can satisfy the evolving desires of this community. The market economies we have, and the neoliberal legal order that backs them, needs us to be the atomized, individual consumers corporations presume we are, whether anyone wants to admit that or not. Sure, manga publishers in NA do try to fellow kids their way through the community of readers with the occasional meme or video, but it’s always going to come off as hollow or as, at best, insufficient. This is because the driving forces of capitalism (in which their interests are reflected) and people’s needs as social beings are fundamentally in tension with one another. The former can only accommodate the latter insofar as it willfully sets aside the rigors of market logic, that your access to culture is determined entirely by your capacity to buy into it.

It’s also worth noting that there are now artistic and cultural enterprises that take the demand for community primary and market demands as secondary. Nerdfighteria springs to mind, but I’d like to focus on the phenomenon of Critical Role, a weekly free stream of a Dungeons & Dragons game put on by a group of voice actors and friends. Since its inception, it has grown from a weird thing most involved thought wouldn’t go anywhere into a media phenomenon with a devoted fanbase and the second largest subscriber base on Twitch, if twitchanalysis is to be believed. Mercer et al. got to this point not merely by tolerating derivative works like fan art, animated gifs, even comic adaptations of their game sessions but by actively soliciting them and giving away prizes in weekly contests. Those who don’t win often have their work figure prominently in b-roll appearing before and following the CR stream. This devotion to building community first and making money second (or, perhaps, giving the two equal weight) has recently been repaid in kind when, for an animated project the cast hoped to receive $750,000, they instead received over $9 million, as of this writing. This left the cast scrambling in the initial days of the campaign to devise new stretch goals, which despite the incredibly high targets, have now been surpassed for over a week. I have no way of knowing whether the CR cast and crew are committed anti-capitalists–I suspect the opposite, in fact–and yet somehow they’ve managed to create a mutual aid structure that would be the envy of the crunchiest coop network. Using capitalism’s tools–because, let’s be honest, Amazon, which owns Twitch, is one of evilest evil-doers–CR has carved out a space for itself that doesn’t necessarily have to obey capitalist logic.

That’s not entirely my insight, unfortunately, but rather an adaptation of a point Lisa Gitelman made years ago at a talk she gave on amateur printing around the turn of the 20th century. This DIY ethos has reproduced itself several times in the US in a number of largely unrelated social phenomena. What they all had in common is the creation of a cultural moment in one of capitalism’s many dead spaces. Zinesters of the ’90s may vigorously deny any connection to the SF fanzine printers of the ’60s and ’70s, but both sought to use their work, including, quite often, the appropriation of copyrighted media, to build a community that mainstream media at the time had no interest in fostering, quite often derided, and only much later came in to exploit those markets that the communitarians created where none previously existed. Consider, for instance, the modern “geek” economy built on the back of a fandom culture that media companies mostly ignored at its inception. Most who participate in this culture now aren’t especially bothered by this historical shift, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

And so we return to the question that launched my thousand digressions, a meandering that, I hope makes clear that the question scanlation poses is far larger than the simple matter of copyright violation, because scanlation isn’t just an illicit commodity in a bootleg economy, it is symptomatic of social formations that the market capitalism to which global media are beholden has a hard time conceptualizing and accommodating, because their interests are mostly antithetical. And it’s to the credit of those who first formulated copyright as a legal regime that they recognized this tension between the public interest in the commodification of cultural output and the then newly created rights of the intellectual property holder. It’s unfortunate that the history of copyright is one in which the public interest has always been increasingly diminished, but that’s not the way things have to be. In fact, somewhat ironically, setting aside the ideology of private property and capital that IP imposes may redound to the creators’ benefit.



*In anticipation of a likely counterargument, I’ll note that while something like Weekly Shonen Jump is now available through Comixology at a very reasonable price, manga costs in the NA market are grossly distorted. A tankobon of Yotsuba& in Japanese has a list price of ¥702 or the equivalent of roughly $6.30. List price for the English translation of the very same paperback is $13, or MORE THAN DOUBLE. Compare that with a translation like Marcus Malte’s The Boy (trans. Emma Ramadan and Tom Roberge), whose French paperback lists for €22,50 (=$26.60), while Simon & Schuster has it listed for $22.99, several dollars LESS. To be fair, the materials used in the NA printing are somewhat better than the Japanese, but hardly enough to justify doubling the cost.


  1. Jim Pyke · · Reply

    Took me a minute to get through this one, but it was totally worth it.
    I really appreciate your ability to illuminate the complexities of this issue.

    I remember years ago hearing Ed Chavez, formerly of Vertical, explaining how a substantial portion of his job consisted of buying stacks of new manga volumes from Japanese bookstores in NYC and reading them (since he could actually read Japanese) on the way to making recommendations for which books Vertical should try to license for publication in translation.

    Given what you describe here as the common practice of people in similar positions at other publishers chasing after scanlations for their licensing recommendations, this goes a ways toward possibly explaining how “cutting edge” the choices that Vertical made were compared to their peers. Ed was helping them set their own trends rather than merely following existing trends among fan scanlators.

    I’m confused about what has happened to Vertical’s ownership in the last few years (and especially since Ed left), but that’s another matter. I do know that in terms of the market/community issues you discuss here I had a lot more fun hanging out talking with Ed at the little Vertical table at ACen and AX every year than whatever it is that happened to them since then.

    The year that Ed left, I was asking after him at the new behemoth of a corporate booth that had consumed Vertical. A worker there who apparently knew him paused our conversation for a minute and disappeared into their storage bins, emerging with a BLAME! t-shirt that had been buried under whatever far less edgy stuff they had there. I asked him how much he wanted for it and he just put a hush finger to his lips and said, “Thanks for being a fan.”

    There’s always some light that emerges from the darkness, lol.

    1. I think I can shed light on a few things.

      1) Vertical was bought out by a joint venture between Kodansha, which has had a far rougher time in the international book market than either Shueisha or Shogakkan, and DNP, which is a commercial printer. I can’t say for certain, but I’d imagine they’ve tried to turn Vertical into another Viz, which is to say a mere overseas subsidiary. Given how conservative Viz is in terms of what it chooses to license–and there’s an entire other article about how this plays into PR for the Japanese state–if Vertical, under Kodansha’s direction, is trying to emulate that model, it doesn’t surprise me that they mostly put out stuff like the XX-monogatari light novels.

      2) Vertical actually began by publishing novels, mostly bestsellers and highbrow genre fiction. Vertical was the first to publish the Ring novels back in 2003. They moved slowly into publishing manga, and, given their pre-existing remit, it’s not surprising that they would tend toward more highbrow and avant-garde titles, since they mostly came from the world of literary fiction. Nowadays, they mostly do manga and light novels, and the lit fic has fallen by the wayside. There are plenty of people at the larger publishers who speak/read Japanese, so this explanation seems more likely to me than anything else. Editorial decisions tend to stem more a larger ethos in the company than any individual’s talents or predilection.

  2. “I think the existing copyright regime is utter bullshit and exists solely to protect the interests of large, multinational corporations” I have had literal rants around this very statement both on- and offline.

  3. Kewl0210 · · Reply

    Hey, thanks for this article. Makes a lot of good points that can be hard to articulate about why scanlation exists as it does. Though it looks like this blog is inactive now, I wish you the best of luck.

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