Anime Editorial

Studios: Crowdsource to Fansubbers and Profit!


Why don’t studios crowdsource to fansubbers and profit? In a previous life, I oversaw a software development practice. I worked for a visionary who saw the potential of something called crowdsourcing. That’s where you package work in compartmentalized chunks and ask folks on the internet to complete a unit of work on spec. I’d review the finished products and select the best one to buy.

Crowdsource to Fansubbers and Profit: Studios could crowdsource less popular titles

The low costs of running the program made it possible to get work done that would not otherwise have been economical to do. Plus, it was way less expensive than hiring contractors. Everyone can win!

So: Why don’t anime studios crowdsource subbing the less popular titles?

Sketchy Sources Don’t Pay

Let’s say I want to buy a legal copy of Isuca (it wasn’t available legally when I first wrote this). Why, you may ask? That’s not important right now.* What is important is that the show didn’t do very well, so the studio wouldn’t initially invest in releasing it in the United States. That means there’s no easy (known) way for me to get a legal copy. If I go to Amazon, the only copies available are from sketchy sources that I’m pretty sure don’t share profits with the studios.

If I were less concerned with legality, I could turn to fansubs, which often come out within a day or two of the original broadcast. Sometimes, you can even choose between multiple resolutions from multiple fansubbers! But the studios have made it clear they regard fansubs as illegal — Anime News Network published a solid analysis that concludes, “Legally, there is no difference between ‘fansubs’ and ‘bootlegs’.”

Crowdsource to Fansubbers and Profit: ANN concluded "fansubs" and "bootlegs" were synonymous

The business part of me has to agree, but the more creative side wonders: Are studios missing an opportunity here?

Make More Money — And Look Good Doing It!

I understand fully why a studio wants to keep control of their shows. It’s their intellectual property. It’s their means of earning money. Especially for the top-tier shows like Fairy Tail, or shows that got cool fancy box sets like Gate or Monster Musume, studios want to control every aspect of the product to ensure buyers enjoy a great experience.**

But what about the shows that don’t do well enough to warrant a corporate release? Whose sales projections don’t warrant the costs of subbing and/or dubbing, much less reproduction and packaging?

Well, the studios’ answer so far has been to walk away from that market. Fansubbers are happy to fill the void, even for no monetary gain — and some legal risk. I think they just love anime and the bragging rights are icing on the cake! But the legal issue looms, and let’s face it: if you’re not a company, justice is awfully expensive.

So why not put fansubbers to work — legally?

Crowdsource to Fansubbers and Profit: Put fansubbers to work legally!

Crowdsource to Fansubbers and Profit!

It wouldn’t be hard to do! The studio could:

  1. Ask potential fansubbers to register and agree not to distribute the materials without the studio’s permission.
  2. After each episode airs, the studio could provide a digital copy of the episode to the registered fansubbers.
  3. The fansubbers would work within a deadline of, say, 48 hours.
  4. Participants return the subbed episode, and the company checks each. entry for accuracy and fidelity. The winner gets a small payment, maybe $250 or something (the amount doesn’t matter, and it’d be up to the studios and participants based on their circumstances). The fansubber who wins also gets bragging rights and credit for their work! Maybe as a gesture of good will, the other fansubbers get to keep the digital copy for their personal enjoyment.
  5. If there are participants who consistently don’t win, the studio could drop them from the program if it seems like they’re just in it for the free digital copy.
  6. The studio could host downloads of the fansubbed individual episodes for some fixed amount (like $1.00 or $2.00); they could even host them on a paid YouTube channel or something. The key is, digital distribution mechanisms could save them packaging and shipping costs.

Crowdsourcing Works!

The studios are probably apprehensive about starting something like this, and it’s easy to see why: any system can be abused and the studio might feel like they’re giving up some control. But this idea harnesses the fansubbers’ enthusiasm for a show, and it lets the studios profit from a series that might not otherwise be marketable. Plus, the studio’s still in complete control of which fansub, if any, get released. The loss of control is illusionary — and I know, because I’ve run a similar program in the past.

Crowdsource to Fansubbers and Profit: Studios could improve their profits!

Best of all? Shows that were less popular will be more available — legally! I’d love to own a legal copy of dozens of series that weren’t released in the States, but they’re just not available. Since I prefer to stay away from illegal streaming sites, that means I’ve decided I just don’t get to see some shows. Crowdsourcing to fansubbers would solve this problem and earn the studios a little more money.

Does Crowdsourcing to Fansubbers and Profiting Sound Like a Good Idea?

What do you think? Have you ever worked inside a company that crowdsourced work? Have you ever worked as part of a crowd? What were your experiences? Let me know in the comments!

* I can neither confirm nor deny it has anything to do with Tamako.

** Yes, I know there are other less charitable interpretations, but I’ve been on both sides of the equation, and I can  say that even the most cynical company wants the consumer to feel good about a big-ticket purchase so they make similar purchases again!

Copyright 2022 Terrance A. Crow. All rights reserved.

13 thoughts on “Studios: Crowdsource to Fansubbers and Profit!

  1. This certainly would ease some burden off studios. The idea of crowd-funding in Japan is still a relatively new idea. I’ve really only seen super small indie bands and idols do it in the past, but with stellar success. However during the pandemic the amount of crowd funding/sourcing projects skyrocketed from big and small companies alike. Loosely I’d say nearly every three out of five projects met or exceeded their goal. So the concept shows a lot of promise at least in theory.

    I think a big thing that you didn’t talk about is how it would go over culturally. An animation studio still have to have their pride (i.e. in this sense control of a project), and admitting that something didn’t do well is… not a thing in Japan really. It’s more common for companies and studios alike to pretend a series never happened, then admit it did poorly. While the West sees crowdfunding as a way for fans to contribute or give back; Japan might not interpret that way. I think the argument would be made that crowdfunding any aspect of a show, even as something as inconsequential as the subtitles, which wouldn’t even affect the Japanese releases, could be perceived that a company had no money, no management, other ‘bad’ business practices, etc. Of course, that would be headed by the old farts still in control, verses the younger demographic but I digress.

    I’d be very curious to see a studio take this approach and see how it would go over. Both in Japan, and globally as the potential doors to be opened through this are astronomical. I guess now it’s just a waiting game!

    1. I think you are getting closer to the idea of why it won’t work. I also think that you need to consider the people in the west who fansub too. Some western fansubers do go into the world of professional subtitling and make a meager profit because they are already undervalued while some stay in their realm of being fansubbers because they don’t want to and think that getting paid for what they do will lessen their passion for why they do it. Or just that they want their work to be given to other people without a certain paywall behind it because of the belief it should be available to everyone with no gimmicks perhaps.

      Not to mention that self fansubbing means there is no inherent deadline so they are forced to do it on a schedule, the fansubbing can happen whenever they feel like because being involved in a major studio or anime licensor company provides a bigger obligation and a bigger demand on a tight schedule or else and a lot of people probably don’t like it that way.

      1. That’s an interesting point about fansubbers potentially having an idealogical objection to being paid. I actually ran into that with some crowdsource engagements.

        At least in the United States, we saw some other motivations that were more in harmony with what we were trying to do. Some people wanted to program for the fun of it. Some wanted to compete with others. So we would still get people willing to work with us.

        Good point about the schedules. Based solely on my observations, fansubbers are _fast_. But they’re on their own schedule. That’d be something both parties would have to negotiate. I’ve actually seen some crowdsourcers ask for more money for faster delivery. That makes some sense to me.

        Still, I’d like to find some way to liberate the huge library of titles that never made it to the US. So much good stuff that I’ll never get to see!

    2. I didn’t know that’s how Japanese companies saw crowdsourcing.

      In retrospect, I wonder if that was behind some of the resistance I saw, even here. It felt irrational to me, because we’d done our research. But I have an annoying blind spot: I’m a practical man, plus I really don’t care how others see me. So when it comes to considerations like that, I often miss them.

      Interesting points!

  2. It may just be that it hasn’t occurred to them to do so. That’s how it has always been done so that’s what we’ll keep on doing.

    Or there may be “stakeholders” who profit from the old way and are afraid of losing out from a new way. This usually happens just before a revolution in production methods.

    1. Both possibilities!

      When my boss suggested crowdsourcing, some of the other managers freaked out. They even tried to get Legal involved, but that was okay. We weren’t stupid; we got Legal involved first!

      I still think this would make a good option for shows that wouldn’t otherwise end up in the West.

      Like Re:CREATORS. I mean, seriously. Where’s my Blu Ray?

  3. Trolling through your old posts. 🙂 This is an interesting idea, but I think the biggest thing that might stop this is the difficulty of setting up sales in multiple countries. For instance, there’s a reason that you can’t buy digital downloads of songs from in the US. It sucks, but there’s gotta be a reason. You’d think that it would be easy to sell them: Credit Card companies are more than happy to do currency exchanges, and it’s not like they have to ship it internationally. But you can’t do it.

    The other two things that I think stop this are 1) Loss of control over your product, in that it’s likely that studios that don’t release things like this don’t have anyone who they could trust that could do a check of a different language. Heck, I’ve always thought that anime studios could get ALTs in Japan to review and edit the times they use English in a show for free, but they don’t do it and keep putting in terrible English. And 2) that they just don’t think it’s worth it, because they don’t really think of international markets.

    1. You make two good, solid business points.

      I hadn’t considered that the studios might not have in-house staff who could handle proofing. Hiring someone would change the cost equation.

      Unless they crowd-source that aspect, too.

      Regarding the idea of it not being worth it, I completely agree that’s why we don’t get some titles. But I can’t believe that a small overhead of $250 to the translator (plus bragging rights), internet bandwidth, and accounting couldn’t be offset by a per episode charge. This is assuming it’s for the titles that aren’t slated for Blu Ray special editions; I can see studios holding those back. But the whole idea is to let the lower-tier series get released and generate at least some positive income. I really think this process could do that.

      I’m afraid that the biggest argument against this is simply a perceived loss of control. What’s funny, though, is that those translations are happening. You can download almost every series airing today, if you know where to look. In essence, all I’m doing is trying to a) find a way for the studio to monetize that and b) find a way for fans who love doing the translation to keep doing it legally.

      Well, I’ve always been a bit of a technology optimist.

      1. I think one big thing is that you’re overestimating the market for these types of shows. I think you might actually be the only person who would consider buying Isuca even at a dollar an episode.

        Now, there is one personal want with respect to this sort of copyright, that I think would have some sort of effect like you want: I would like to see copyright holders required to make their owned properties available. If you own the copyright to a work – TV, movie, music, artwork, book, etc – a digital copy has to be purchasable by anyone. Otherwise, you lose your exclusivity, and have no claim against other people distributing your work. Now, this might result in a lot of things being priced like movies in the original VHS store rental model, where a copy of a movie was on the order of $150, back in the 80s, but I think that for a lot of things, they’d just give them up to the long tail: Make the digital version, put it out there for 10, 15 bucks, and just take the residual sales. If you have to make the version anyway, then a lot of the argument against having them available goes away.

        I’ve also mulled over another thing that I think could be workable, although this is much more from the Napster era of music downloading: Copyright owners don’t need to do distribution. They sell licenses. You buy a license, and then you are legally able to own whatever digital copy you can get your hands on. But this is much less workable.

        1. “I think you might actually be the only person who would consider buying Isuca even at a dollar an episode.”

          Oh, I don’t know! I think there are least three of us around the globe…

          “Now, there is one personal want with respect to this sort of copyright, that I think would have some sort of effect like you want: I would like to see copyright holders required to make their owned properties available. ”

          As a content creator myself (kinda fancy way to say writer, isn’t it?), I honestly like this idea. The whole idea of copyright is to give the creator a chance to profit. If the owner doesn’t try to profit, then either turn the work over to public domain or reconsider. None of us create in a vacuum. All of us create in the context of our civilization. We should share with that civilization so the spark can jump to the next creator.

          And yes, I’m insinuating the Isuca might spark new creations! I stubbornly maintain that it’s possible!

          No, it is!

          “Copyright owners don’t need to do distribution. They sell licenses. ”

          I think there’s merit that idea. Why _should_ it matter how I get a copy? People, on the whole, are honest. I’d rather own a legal copy than have anything pirated. I _want_ to support the copyright owner. So what do I do if the work’s not legally available in my area? If I could buy a license and then get to work, I might be able to tap into the fansubber reservoir. Heck, if we do the licensing right, they could even demand proof of license before distribution, then all’s well!

          I like your ideas!

          1. “People, on the whole, are honest. I’d rather own a legal copy than have anything pirated. I _want_ to support the copyright owner.”

            This is how I feel people are, too. Especially if being honest is easy. Look how popular legit music streaming sites and legit tv streaming sites are. People thought “If you *can* get it for ‘free’, why would anyone pay for it?” The answer is because paying for it is easy, and gets you what you want without having to feel bad.

            And if everything is available, then you can have the discussion (and actually gather data) on how price affects purchasing.

Please let me know what you think!

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