I’m sure by now everyone has heard the news about Nick Simmons’ alleged (and meticulously documented) plagiarism in his fledgling comic, Incarnate. For those who haven’t, Deb Aoki has a collection of links and Twitter conversations here in her blog. As you’ll see from her post, discussion of plagiarism has segued into discussion of piracy. I was foolish enough to wade into the comments section yesterday evening, which turned out to be frustrating, exhausting, and really nothing else.
As I mentioned to someone later on Twitter, I was not nearly as anti-scanlation when I entered the conversation as I was when I left. In the end, the pro-scanlation crowd had turned me against them to the point where I not only could no longer see any merit in what they were saying, but was frankly disgusted by the idea of being part of the same fan community. I have some examples to share, but first, a confession:
I used to read scanlations–lots and lots of them. In fact, scanlations were my introduction to manga. I asked some friends online to share their favorite fandoms with me, and one of them ended up depositing scans for the entire run of Hikaru no Go in my lap. I fell in love and was hooked forever. After that point, I started buying manga but I still read scans. I had lots of justifications for it. Long series were enticing but daunting to purchase, and my library system sucked (for instance, if you’re interested in the classic shojo series Please Save My Earth, the entire Western MA library system offers volumes 1, 2, 3, and 19, spread over three different libraries). When faced with moments of guilt, I justified myself by saying I’d buy these series as soon as I could, or for series I already owned, I promised to buy new volumes as soon as they were available in English.
After a while I started reading only on sites that offered online reading, as opposed to downloading the scans to store on my own computer, as if that was somehow less odious. I wrote long blog posts, promoting all the series I loved best–encouraging fans to buy the official releases but still happy to provide links to scanlation sites behind closed doors. After all, that’s how I’d gotten into it, so it was okay to let them have a taste too, right? Just to promote the series, of course. I was doing a good deed, really. That’s actually what I thought. I even waded into a few online debates back then, not exactly defending scanlations, but suggesting that they might not be all bad… that they generated buzz for manga, and that had to be a good thing, right? Right??
Then, in December of 2008, a couple of fantastic women asked me to start writing manga reviews. Reviewing led to more serious blogging, and blogging led to Twitter, where I was suddenly able to engage much more directly with long-time bloggers, reviewers, journalists, and of course, publishers. In that circle, I became much more aware of the nature of the manga industry in North America than I’d ever been before.
I learned all about the difficulty of obtaining licenses, the expense of printing, the gambles, the losses, the unsold books, the huge layoffs, the dumped artists. I watched several publishers go completely (or nearly) under, taking licenses I cared about with them. I watched favorite titles get canceled or put on indefinite hiatus. And you know what? I realized I was wrong. All the endless downloading, sharing, reading, and squeeing? That stuff I thought was “creating a buzz” or “promoting the series” or whatever? It meant nothing. It supported no one. Because when I looked back at it, I realized that all those people I “promoted” the series to? Most of them never bought the books. And why would they, when I’d shown them where they could read it for free? There’s a reason why Banana Fish is the series I’ve most successfully pitched to other readers in terms of getting them to actually buy the books. Why? Because there are no scans.
Now, that story I just told is just to provide some background. I’m not going to get on my high horse here. I’m not innocent and I can’t pretend to be. I’m not even willing to say that no good has ever come out of scanlations, because from what I understand, there are times when it has. I’ve heard plenty of stories about publishers deciding to license series that were popularly read online, and probably some of those are true. I don’t think the world is a black-and-white place, and I’m certainly not prepared to say that I know the Truth about manga publishing (or anything else). Some fans, however, are using this loophole of universal ambiguity to justify any means of getting whatever they want whenever they want it and painting it as righteous, and frankly, it’s not helping their cause.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the comments to Deb’s post:
“If they can’t come up with ways to get customers to *want* to purchase things that *can’t* be copied online then they deserve to go bankrupt.”
“I read scanlations every week. You know why? Because the newest chapter won’t be available for several years in the USA. I don’t think you can accuse someone of piracy when the product is not available to buy.”
“The majority of people who pirate, would’ve never bought the product in the first place, if they wanted to, and/or could afford it, then they would buy it.”
(Regarding artists) “If they just wanted to make money, then they should probably look for another profession. If people like the work, then they will pay for it. Forcing someone to buy your art is a silly idea IMO … I’m not sure about you, but I for one hold artists to a different standard. IMO, true artists care more about spreading their art/ideas, rather than making money.”
“Borrowing from a friend/library to watch, and reading it online… It’s pretty much the same thing IMO … What difference does it make if someone decides to make a copy of it for themselves? If they were going to pay for it, then they would have done so in the first place.”
Seriously, these are your arguments? It’s not piracy if it’s unavailable for purchase in your language? Creating unlimited digital copies is the same thing as taking a book out from the library? True artists shouldn’t care about being paid for their work? If publishers can’t stop you from pirating their products, they deserve to go bankrupt? (That is an argument for DRM if I ever heard one, which kind of makes me sick.) There may be legitimate arguments to be made in favor of scanlations, but these are definitely not them. Arguments like these display an incredible sense of entitlement and no real understanding of the world (note: even “true artists” have to eat and pay their rent).
I have said some pretty idiotic things during my time in the manga blogosphere (no, really I have), and I know how easy it is to get so caught up in defending your point that you lose the thread of your own logic. I also know how hard it is to admit to being wrong. I’m not all that good at it myself. So I’m not going to condemn anyone based on one argument, despite the anger I felt in the heat of the moment. I urge you though, please, if you have ever made arguments like this, even just to yourself… seriously think about it. I’ve had to do a lot of this over the past couple of years and I’ve had to admit I was wrong, over and over again. Just… think about it. That’s all I ask.
Comments welcome. Though I’ll tell you now, if you’re coming over to defend the stuff about how artists shouldn’t care about being paid and so on, don’t.
ETA: For those of you making snide comments in various corners of the internet about me giving up scans after receiving free review copies… I guarantee I buy more manga than you do. I suspect most reviewers do. If you’re absolutely determined to discredit me, you’ll have to come up with something else.