Rocket Bomber - article - manga - business - Scanlation and the Prisoners' Dilemma

Scanlation and the Prisoners' Dilemma

filed under , 23 July 2010, 09:48 by

An awful lot of digital ink has been spilled, and a furious back and forth no doubt still continues, over the latest iteration of Publishers vs Pirates, 2010 Manga Death Match Edition – News recently broke out all over that Seeming #1 Scanlation Site,, is getting out of the content business [currently they hope to continue as an online forum and community; best of luck with that, kids]

If you haven’t read any of the numerous articles & opinion pieces on the move, I’ll refer you to the two links above, which will take you to appropriate Google searches.

Working in a bookstore, I have a privileged position, in that I sit atop a multi-billion dollar distribution chain that includes not just a mammoth corporately-owned warehouse that serves 800+ book superstores but also a network of affiliated distributors—including Baker & Taylor, Bookazine, Partners West, and Ingram—not to mention direct-to-store weekly shipments from Macmillan, Random House, Hachette, Penguin, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster — and if I even look crosswise at a title, or sneeze, I can have it actually in the store in 4 business days. Maybe 5 if it has to ship from the opposite coast.

So as a manga fan, I have unprecedented access to books [that I could, you know, order into the store just because I’d like to sample ‘em regardless of whether I plan to buy them or think they might sell] that might make some of the rest of you drool, or perhaps foam at the mouth in a fit of envy.

Damn, but it’s good to be a bookseller.

Despite that, and because I know unsold books cost me twice (once to order, once to return – even though the stock is returnable it incurs additional costs) I don’t actually order all that much unless I plan to buy it. Last time I did the math, fully one-third of all manga sold through my bookstore was in fact just me buying the books for myself.

Major bookstore chain outpost. One manga fan. One Third. — I bring this up to point out that, yeah, well I’m a big ol’ geek fanboy and a collector besides but also: my store just doesn’t sell much manga.

[We’re in more of an art- and coffee-table book market. $80 hardcover full-colour clay-paper heavily-illustrated interior design books? some titles we’re selling in the hundreds]


My point, and I do have one, is that as a fan I never felt the need to go to an online scanlation aggregator site because, hell, I can’t even get around to reading all the damn books that are available.

What, 1000 volumes a year released in English isn’t enough for you? Used to be more, and of course the backlist grows each and every year. & I don’t know which year you’d care to pick for the manga “revolution” but we’re not even 10 years in yet.

I’ve an—incomplete—database with [checking…] 8,872 titles in it, as of last Sunday, and I expressly don’t include a lot of older stuff that is out-of-print (technically; but still in warehouses) which just hasn’t sold in quantity in the last 3 years; My personal best guess is that there are 10,000 manga volumes available in licensed, translated English editions [most new, some used] and that at a book a day it’d take you 27 years to read them all.

If you read a book an hour for 16 hours a day, you still wouldn’t exhaust the amount of legal, licensed manga for another 20-21 months or so.


Of course, copyrights and actual availability of physical books in a language you can read are a loser’s argument in the scanlation community, where the licensing of a title is mourned rather than celebrated—by those who maintain the fig-leaf-fiction of “promoting” unlicensed manga—and the whole business activity of publishing is actively ignored by the rest.

My favourite argument so far is that “Well, if the Japanese publishers had only embraced digital downloads and the fast translations provided by the scanlation community five years ago, we’d all have cheap translated manga, scanlators would get paid for their noble efforts, and Everyone Would Make Money”

I won’t call out individuals on this, but I’ve seen this argument (and subtle variations on it) quite a bit recently.

Here’s the thing:

Say I own a retail outlet. Shoplifters steal my merchandise, maybe to sell locally, maybe to sell just over the border because my stuff just isn’t available in Quebec.

Still theft.

Then say an accomplished shoplifter says, “Hey, your stuff isn’t available in Montreal; I’ll cut you a deal: me and my crew, we’ve lifted a tonne of stuff off you already, we’re selling it for just a few bucks apiece out the back of a lorry just off Saint Laurent Boulevard – and business is good. Say, I know know you’re mad about the whole ‘theft’ thing but let’s say I cut you in for a share of the profits if you just call off the cops?”

But I’m not selling things in Quebec. I’m not printing books in French, let alone Québécois and had no real desire to do so.

It’s my fault if people steal from me?

Consumer demand is there. Granted.

And demand not met through legitimate channels is fulfilled by ‘black’ and ‘grey’ markets

— doesn’t make it any more legal, and economic demand doesn’t excuse anything (so far as I know) — “free manga” advocates are now in the same realm as those advocating for legal marijuana and prostitution — except of course, advocates of those pastimes are ready and willing to spend money [and at a premium over market costs] if only it were possible to do so legally, and with whatever restrictions the government [or say, international copyright treaties —in a different context] might impose on their use of these products and services.

Just because you want it, doesn’t make it legal. Just because you want it, doesn’t make your acquisition of stolen goods moral. Just because you want it, doesn’t mean you get it.

And don’t rationalize or even glorify illegal means to procure it.

Sure, now you have what you want. Feel some shame. If you’re going to be a pirate, get an eyepatch and a parrot and some rum, and glory in your illegal status, but don’t expect companies to nod-and-wink at your activity, and when the force of law finally makes it to your secluded outpost, be prepared to be hanged [metaphorically]. It was a great run, but there are no Pirates in modern New Orleans, in the Chesapeake, in the Carolinas — and I’m pretty sure the Pirates of the Caribbean were sued by Disney out of existence in the 80s.



1. Right now, Japanese publishers of [unlicensed] manga aren’t making any money on the vasty hoards of cheap-ass american otaku who download scanlations for free.

2. Scanlation sites make “no” money [though, personally, I’d love to have the “no” income from ad revenue on a Top 1000 ranked website] and they’re only supplying a service to fans who [not knowing what a comic shop or bookstore is] have ‘no other way’ to read manga.

3. See, here? I’m willing to cut some folks a break: Scanlators may in fact be trufans who make manga available to others merely because they have a love of the art, and the form, and the works. However, their efforts get wrapped up and subsumed by scanlation aggregators who most decidedly are in it for the money. And that’s the problem. But that’s a point most ignore, willing to conflate charitable scanlators with the [mercenary] sites where they find scanlations…

4. So, the argument goes, if only Aggregators* and Publishers could reach some sort of compact, both would profit and everyone wins. QED.

Here’s the thing: Publishers (Japanese originals or licensees of whatever stripe) own the property.

They don’t have to share.

And, most especially: Free markets go both ways. You can chose to buy or not buy based on whatever criteria you’d care to use: print quality, translation quality, price, online extras, post-purchase support, whim.

And sellers can choose not to sell based on whatever criteria they’d like: profit margins, profit vs cost, cost of localization, perceived problems with local moral standards, legal issues, or merest whim. No one has to sell you anything, or make available for sale of anything through alternate channels. That’s the seller’s choice in a free market. You’re entitled to nothing. They own it and can choose not to sell it. What? You have to have access, or be able to buy whatever you want? What are you, a socialist?

[As an anarcho-socialist myself, I’d love to hear your arguments, but as a person who has to earn a paycheck in a capitalist society, I’m also going to force you to make those arguments yourself — no way I’m doing it for you]

Some have argued: if only publishers would cooperate, I could make money, And they could make money, if only they weren’t so stiff

That is to say: If you and I agree, we both benefit.

That’s the crux of the common situation in game theory described as The Prisoners’ Dilemma

In the case of manga: if publishers would just stand shoulder-to-shoulder with scanlators, both could make a profit.

Yeah. But:

If scanlators [or more typically, their agents] screw over publishers, they retain all ad revenue. Actually, the aggregators screw over both publishers and scanlators so I don’t see why manga ‘fans’ support any of these sites except that they’re both lazy and stupid.

If creators & publishers stand by their legal, centuries-old rights, they miss out on whatever potential profits might be online, but they also guarantee their print profits and royalties – plus whatever additional profits might be gained through justified recourse in the courts.

So aggregation sites have no incentive to cooperate with publishers, and publishers have no logical reason to cooperate with fuckwads who steal content [steal from both publishers and volunteer scanlators] to post to the internet for ad revenue.

While game theory predicts that an ‘optimal’ solution might be reached if only the two parties co-operated, so long as each side has both motivation and economic incentives to ‘defect’ there is no possibility of any collaborative effort unless a major player in the market behaves irrationally.

[Crunchyroll is my best example of an irrational player, to say nothing of the deals they’ve effected in a short time — so I’m not saying it can’t happen, just that it likely won’t]


I don’t have the answer. [if I had the answer, I’d also have a startup company] but lamenting what was ‘lost’ while ignoring the embarrassment of riches published each and every month smacks of both laziness and an ingrained contempt for the many professionals who work to translate and localize manga for your benefit.

And: How many fans complain that a translation is ‘wrong’ just because it differs from the first [hasty, occasionally incorrect] translation they read? Is this why scanlators and fan-subbers work so hard to post first? Not to satisfy artificial demand, but to register in the fanbase as the first, “real” translation? If you think ego and recognition have nothing to do with the fan community than I salute your commitment to naïveté but I also fear for the day when your illusions crash down around your ears.


  1. “If you read a book an hour for 16 hours a day, you still wouldn’t exhaust the amount of legal, licensed manga for another 20-21 months or so.”

    Well, here’s the thing. I buy a lot of of manga. A lot. (More than I have room for in my apartment.) In fact, I spend pretty much all of my disposable income on manga. But most of the manga that gets licensed and printed isn’t my sort of thing; I’m not into shonen action or fanservice-and-blood seinen or sappy shoujo romances (well, OK, a few sappy shoujo romances…). I want to spend money on manga, but 950 of the 1000 volumes to be published in English this year aren’t things I want to read.

    Whenever I find a really great author who I love and want more of, there’s an odds-on chance that their book will flop and the series will be cancelled, and no-one will touch them again. Or the entire publisher goes belly-up and takes the series with them (From Eroica With Love, I mourn your passing). Or the Japanese publisher prefers to deal with US publisher X, and US publisher X won’t print the type of book in question (* cough * Viz * cough * Shogakukan’s BL titles * cough *).

    There’s a lot of books I want, badly, in English which are probably never going to happen. I buy manga in French and German if I have to, and I’ve got a decent collection of stuff in Japanese that I can drool over but not actually read. So I read scanlations.

    Of course, every now and then some publisher steps up to the plate and licenses something awesome (Moyasimon, wohoo!). I’m still stunned that Vertical announced Litchi Hikari Club; I would have bet a month’s income that that puppy would never see the light of day over here. But as long as the US manga market is geared to people who are not me, the total number of books out there is pretty irrelevant.

    Comment by JRB — 23 July 2010, 13:05 #

  2. Incidentally, I’m with you on one thing: the aggregation sites need to die in a fire. I support scanlations under the right circumstances, but not making money off them. They’re just parasites.

    Comment by JRB — 23 July 2010, 13:13 #

  3. @JRB Kudos to you for buying what you can, where you can: but you are not the problem. And any solution that is convenient for you will also [at least as currently structured] just make it easier for others to steal.

    It’s not ideal, or easy;

    But since when did a multinational publishing/licensing effort across at least one language barrier have to be easy. I mean, honestly?

    Hollywood does it on a weekly basis but Hollywood gets paid.

    without reading Japanese the appropriate posture is one of gratitude, not expectation and entitlement.

    Comment by Matt Blind — 23 July 2010, 14:27 #

  4. Oh, and @JRB:

    while “the total number of books out there is pretty irrelevant” to you, that is in fact the business of publishers and licensees.

    Even If your favourites aren’t included, that’s not your call to make, unless you have the money to pay translators & Japanese licensors to bring those titles to market.

    Embrace black and grey market manga, make them your own, revel in it; but don’t blame publishers (on either side of the Pacific) for their inability to release manga precisely to suit your tastes.

    Here is one more edge on the capitalist Free Market model: no one has to buy, no one has to sell, and no one is obligated to give you exactly what you want for the price you’re willing to pay.

    Pay more, or do without. And if it’s just not available: do without.

    Yes, you can pirate it, but that is not because of a failing of the free market.

    Comment by Matt Blind — 23 July 2010, 14:42 #

  5. “Yes, you can pirate it, but that is not because of a failing of the free market.”

    Well, I dunno. Many of the titles I like are titles a reasonable number of other people also like, just not enough to tempt a publisher to license them when they could try for the next Naruto instead. I think there’s an economics-jargon term (market inefficiency?) for the situation where there is a product and prospective buyers for that product, but not enough to overcome the cost of getting the product to the buyers.

    I am hopeful for the various online-manga distribution initiatives that have been announced recently, especially those coming directly from Japanese publishers (like Libre/Animate’s Kindle offerings). With luck, an online or e-book for-pay system will make it financially appealing to make the smaller niche titles available in English. Of course, one of the barriers to that is getting Japanese publishers onboard with digital distribution, which historically seems to have been difficult, although that may be changing.

    Comment by JRB — 23 July 2010, 15:19 #

  6. Crunchyroll is an interesting case. Nowadays, most leech bloodsucker anime streaming sites present as* “pure” aggregators: they link to free streaming video sites like Murdoch’s MySpace, or Megavideo, or VEOH. At current ad rates and bandwidth costs, its about the only choice available to them.

    But Crunchyroll hosted videos. They had to pay the streaming costs. Indeed, their first adoption of an official site policy of no licensed titles was purported to be in order to save on streaming costs.

    The Japanese rights holders were wary of tackling Crunchyroll, because fears of the blowback through social networking on site … but seem to have been getting talked around by Region1 license holders (especially Funimation).

    Just as with the directly hosted manga sites, once the rights owners decide to go after a site that hosts the content itself, the site is in a very exposed condition.

    In those circumstances, landing the venture capital to try to go legit was not so irrational a play after all. Just as the game theory would suggest: the way for the prisoners to break the prisoner’s dilemma is for there to be a shift in the payoffs (eg, a guy named Guido) so that the negative consequences of turning in their partner is higher than the negative consequences of staying quiet.

    1. Present as*: of course, site volunteers illegally upload bootlegs to the free video upload sites in order to maintain the series catalog.

    Comment by BruceMcF — 25 July 2010, 23:56 #

  7. This is quite an intensive essay! I’m amazed at the amount of personal information you conveyed here.

    I wanted to counter one of your aguements with a little ancedote. One thing that separates Manga from other books is how much of a quick read they can be. An experienced reader can blaze through a good volume in about 15 minutes. Given that the average Manga page takes about 3.5 seconds for an average Japanese person to read, that’s still 10 minutes of good time there.

    I made the arguement that such a scanlation site for European comics could be used to spread their popularity, but having read your essay, I’m now not so sure. There’s no proof that these (theoretical) scanners of translated BDs would honour their agreement not to show already licensed properties, let alone keep them off-limits if threatened upon.

    Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing someone gather all the “unofficial” English translations of French BDs for easy viewing. (Even if it wouldn’t last for long)

    Comment by DeBT — 26 July 2010, 13:13 #

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