Fansubs: fan-produced subtitles added to original footage of foreign television programs or films.
Most commonly a practice by fans of Japanese animation, fansubs have, since the 1980s in America, allowed fans of anime to view the Japanese-language media and share it amongst friends. While technically illegal  in terms of copyright law, fansubbing in the Internet age has proliferated to a point that 1) fans rely on fansubbing groups to keep up with the latest series, and 2) the animation industry has felt the need to form a conversation around protecting their intellectual property . By the end of 2008, the demand for English-language fansubs reached such a critical point that major Japanese animation companies teamed up with the (previously illegal) Crunchyroll.com to distribute fansubs streaming online in a timely manner (read: one hour after television broadcast in Japan) for a fee or after a longer period (one week) for free .
In the summer of 2008, I traveled down to Baltimore, MD for Otakon, the largest East-coast anime convention, and attended the Fansubber & Industry Discussion panel (viewable online ). After the panel ended, I snagged Interactii, one of the members of the popular fansubbing group Dattebayo Fansubs, LLC , for a quarter-hour to ask a few questions, reprinted below:
Q: Can you comment on the fact that Dattebayo, while fansubbing is technically illegal, [is] asking YouTube to follow through with legal actions…
Interactii: Yeah, the reason that we do that is because we believe that having some level of control over the material is very important. So if it is asked of us to stop, we can try to stop as best as possible. And YouTube is so uncontrolled in its methods of distribution and it’s so accessible — it’s accessibly accessible — by my viewpoint. And so our goal is just to reduce that. And it’s also kind of to protect the interest of the show, because it’s not good for that to be on YouTube. Anime companies don’t want it, fansubbers and fansubbing groups don’t want it… we’re all working towards that same kind of goal.
Q: Where do you think the intellectual property lies? Is it just in the fansubs themselves? Or is it in the link between the fansub and the video…
Interactii: From our standpoint?
Q: From the company’s standpoint, because technically the entire use of the episode is not under free use.
Interactii: It’s murky for sure, but we went through the process with YouTube, and we got the approval to do it. We do it on the basis of the translations and the styling of the translations as a thing that’s copyrightable, which is technically under the DMCA, which is something that we can take down. That’s kind of our approach to it, and it hasn’t been challenged by anyone so far. So we’re continuing to operate under it.
Q: What material do you submit to them so that they can track the takedowns?
Interactii: Actually, it’s not tracked by them. We have someone on our staff who has the authorization to take down the videos.
Q: If the Japanese company were to go to YouTube and try to find some parallel between your takedowns and their takedowns, do you think there would be some kind of conflict there?
Interactii: Probably, yes. But I don’t see how our take-downs would possibly be non-beneficial to them. We only remove our content. We don’t remove all Naruto. We remove Naruto with our subs on them; we remove Bleach with our subs on them. It’s only those things that we’re removing, so we’re not removing anything that they might be contributing. So there’s really no negative effect in my mind.
Q: Have you guys taken any legal action against people who try to distribute these videos?
Interactii: We really have no grounds to. We’ve asked places who do that to stop, and we’ve sent people other requests — Please stop doing this. And that’s basically the same course we did with YouTube, and by being persistent about it they gave us the access to do that.
Dattebayo Fansubs, who subtitle the trendy anime Naruto Shippuuden and Bleach, currently rests at the sixth position for most copyright-related take-downs of the videos tracked by the Youtomb project (excluding those removed by “a third party”). TV Tokyo Corporation, the Japanese distributors of Naruto and Bleach, occupies the third position .
The conflict between the fansubber and the owner of the animation certainly evokes new questions regarding copyright, particularly because the subtitles remain a translucent layer of intellectual property draped over the original media. Is it legal, therefore, for Dattebayo to claim partial property or legality to a complete (“whole,” “unified”; not “entire”) cultural production? Free use, unfortunately, does not apply in this case. Or, in a more general sense, is it legal to make a claim of copyright where a more legitimate layer of copyright exists? Either way, it is illegal to upload the original animation, with or without fansubs, according to the YouTube Terms of Service, Section 6D and 6E :
D. In connection with User Submissions, you further agree that you will not submit material that is copyrighted, protected by trade secret or otherwise subject to third party proprietary rights, including privacy and publicity rights, unless you are the owner of such rights or have permission from their rightful owner to post the material and to grant YouTube all of the license rights granted herein.
E. You further agree that you will not, in connection with User Submissions, submit material that is contrary to the YouTube Community Guidelines, found at http://www.youtube.com/t/community_guidelines, which may be updated from time to time, or contrary to applicable local, national, and international laws and regulations.
In the contemporary agenda of YouTube copyright, my personal interest lies in a parallel between fansubbed material and Youtube’s trend of music-related takedowns. It may not (but should) be common knowledge that Youtube utilizes its Content Identification system  to target videos that contain copyrighted music. My curiosity (and concern) is whether animation studios will submit the original audio of anime episodes (audio that comprises music, actors’ voices, sound effects, etc.) to track more quickly any uploaded content. I wonder too whether groups like Dattebayo could do the same and do it legally. Although they do not own rights to the original footage and audio, could fansubbing groups also use the original audio to track when fansubs are uploaded?
[This article has been cross-posted to the Department of Alchemy.]