When piracy becomes promotion

The global sales of Japanese animation and character goods reach 9 trillion yen ($80 billion), 10 times what it was a decade ago.

They won worldwide success, especially in USA and Western Europe, in part because Japanese media companies were tolerant of the kinds of grassroots activities that American media companies seem so determined to shut down. Much of the risks of entering Western markets and many of the costs of experimentation and promotion were born by dedicated consumers.


Throughout the years, American fans used every technology at their disposal to expand the community that loved this content.
The rise of videotape recorders allowed fans to dub shows and share them with friends. American fan clubs emerged to support the archiving and circulation of Japanese animation, functionning as lending libraries and dubbing centers and holding marathon screenings to attract new members.

Japanese distributors didn’t have permission from their mother companies to charge these fans or provide the material but they were interested to see how much interest the shows attracted.

Later, the emergence of “fansubbing” –the amateur translation and subtitling of Japanese anime thanks to the introduction of a device– allowed to dub the tapes so that they retained accurate alignment of text and image. The fansubbed videos often ran an advisory urging users to “cease distribution when licensed.”

The first niche companies to distribute Anime on DVD and VHS emerged as fan clubs simply went pro, acquiring the distribution rights from re-engaged Japanese media companies.

Many U.S. media companies might have regarded all of this underground circulation as piracy and shut it down. But Japanese corporation try to collaborate with fan clubs, subcultures, and other consumption communities, seeing them as important allies in developing new content or broadening markets.

Rather than suing their fan base, perhaps American media companies should study how their Japanese counterparts profited from this first wave of underground circulation, seeing it as promotion rather than piracy.

More details in MIT Technology Review.