Theft, as we have seen, is the secret taking away of what belongs to another, against their reasonable wish… The use of any unlawful dealing with the property of another against their wish is theft, such as when a tramp makes himself at home for the night on another’s premises, or when a passenger travels on the railway or tram without paying his fare…
The sin of theft is of itself grievous, as is clear from the fact that it is against justice and charity; St. Paul even classes it among the sins which shut the kingdom of heaven to the sinner.Fr. Thomas Slater SJ, A Manual Of Moral Theology (1925, pg.252)
On 14 August 2020, as part of the Japanese government’s initiative to crack down on piracy websites, kissanime.ru, a popular website which for about 8 years had provided a service to stream anime episodes, was permanently shut down much to the dismay of many in the anime community, both longtime and newcomers. For many years since the arrival of interest in anime on North American soil, the question of piracy has been a source of major concern, and even battles between companies who wanted to do everything they can to protect their product, and a dedicated fanbase who wanted to spread further interest in this product. Among the latter group, they cite that without their proactivity in spreading this medium across a wide range of places such as school campuses, anime conventions, and video rental stores, the popularity of anime would never have reached the heights that it has produced today.
One such method, fansubbing, short for fan subtitling, or the act of producing vernacular subtitles to accompany the Japanese voices of each episode, was especially significant in the aforementioned goal. It is to anime what the hand missal is to the Traditional Latin Mass for Traditionalist Catholics; a means by which one could follow along with the actions and the language without compromising on their inability to speak the language; and for almost forty years since anime showed up in North America, it was the most popular way to standardize anime amongst a group of English speakers. This post will chronicle the history behind the fansubbing community and its impact on anime, and finally, provide a Traditionalist Catholic outlook regarding the morality of such.
FANSUBBING: A SHORT BUT CONCISE HISTORY
Note: The primary sources used to write this post include:
- “Progress Against Law: Fan Distribution, Copyright, and the Explosive Growth of Japanese Animation” by Sean Leonard (2004)
- “Of Otaku And Fansubs: A Critical Look at Anime Online In Light of Current Issues In Copyright Law” by Jordan Hatcher (2005)
- “Piracy or Productivity: Unlawful Practices in Anime Fansubbing” by Teemu Mantyla (2010)
Anime has become one of Japan’s biggest exports in recent years, with an industry that is worth billions of dollars, and its origins in North America date back to as early as the 1960s, with shows such as Astro Boy, Gigantor, Kimba The White Lion and Speed Racer proving heavily popular amongst young American audiences. In the mid-1970s, Fred Patten, the founder of the first anime club in the United States, known as the Cartoon & Fantasy Organization (hereafter C/FO) began to establish links with other Japanese animation companies to obtain permission to distribute and publicly market their works, but this relationship was short-lived. However, amongst those who had the seed of fandom planted, there became an increased desire to spread this medium further than the Japanese market did, and as the anime tapes spread like wildfire, so did the desire to make them understandable to non-Japanese speakers; and thus, the fansub was born. Starting with translation booklets akin to Roman Catholic missals of old, this would eventually evolve to the form we know of today, with subtitles to cover each character’s dialogue. C/FO was the first to produce one for the series Lupin III, which would be followed up in 1989 with the Ranma Project’s fansub of the first two episodes of Ranma 1/2; ironically, the lack of control regarding the fansubbing community would lead to the demise of C/FO that same year.
As fansubs became more popular and the technology to produce them more affordable, this led to conflict with various distributors. Understandably, this came about because North American media companies were generally reluctant to license these series, and as a result fans were led to take matters into their own hands and continued to produce these fansubs underground – banking on the law enforcement’s reluctance to chase down copyright infringers, borne out of their passion for such a product. However, at times Japanese companies also showed approval of the growing fan interest with anime, as evidenced by the screenings at conventions such as Anime Expo, and various groups involved with this activity took careful procedures to avoid the sale of bootlegging anime tapes and licensing conflicts, usually ceasing unofficial fansubbing activity once that show was licensed. An example of such a code can be found on Anime News Network, detailing how fansubbers should treat their content. With the advent of the Internet and torrenting sites such as BitTorrent, however, difficulties would arise with managing their own self-imposed code of ethics, and in one particular instance, an anime distribution company, Odex, would gain massive notoriety for a botched 2007-2008 lawsuit they launched against them.
The legacy of the fansub can be found all over the Internet; today, there exist a wide range of sites where one could watch anime for free, and the former kissanime.ru was, amongst many, was no exception to this. Prior to its demise, the site averaged over 100 million users monthly, and had a catalog of thousands of old and new shows. Even a simple Google search for “watch anime online” will also turn up hundreds, if not thousands of sites allowing people to do likewise; further proof of how popular this medium has become. The eminent success of these sites can be attributed mainly to the efforts of not just the fansubbers, whose work can often be found on such places, but also with the lack of effort from anime studios to strictly enforce their copyright campaigns outside of Japan who choose to tolerate them in the hopes that they might attract potential sales.
Amongst some of the impact that fansubbed anime has produced include:
- In a 2011 study conducted by Prof. Tanaka Tatsuo, a current economics professor at Keio University, the effect of fansubbed anime seems to have a positive impact on boosting legitimate sales of anime merchandise
- In 2010, a group of German anime distributors and fans banded together to create the Anime Copyright Alliance, which in addition to removing illegal copies of anime subs, eagerly collaborated with fans to create licensed, official versions of subbed anime
- Streaming services such as Crunchyroll and Funimation continue to see an increase in users, and continue to thrive to this day with providing high-quality versions of subtitled anime, unlike in the fansubbing era when companies such as the notorious 4Kids released abomination of desolations after another with their highly compromised dubs
- Moreover, fansubbers are said to play a significant role in preservation of older series, some of which are largely unknown and oft-forgotten – without them, it would be argued that the popularity of these shows would not be as significant as they are today
WHEN MORAL THEOLOGY AND FANSUBS COLLIDE
In their pieces, Leonard, Mantyla and Hatcher are unanimous that based on copyright laws, the distribution of fansubbed anime in the early years bordered on illegal, with the exception of those that received approval from the original creators to do so. From the point of view of Catholic moral theology, however, it all comes down to the concept of ownership. Though theologians generally agree that people selling the fansubs for money would undoubtedly fall under the category of theft, as the individuals involved did not have any permission to sell the tapes for profit, unfortunately so would the act of editing the tapes with unofficial subtitles and distributing them.
Theft constitutes a serious sin against justice, primarily because it does not take into consideration the will of the owner of the product which was violated during the process. The gravity of the sin committed typically depends on how large the amount was stolen; generally the more, the graver (except if that small amount was, for example, necessary for a day’s worth of living).
THE NECESSITY OF RESTITUTION. It is necessary for salvation to make restitution either in fact or at least in intention for any notable harm inflicted on another.
The reason is evident. One cannot attain to salvation without observing justice. But whosoever refuses to make restitution when he is able to do so, either a) for something that he has unjustly resolved, or b) for something that he possesses unjustly, or c) for unjust damage inflicted on another is violating justice.Fr. Dominic Prummer OP, Handbook Of Moral Theology (1957, pg. 140)
Moreover, Catholic moral theologians state the necessity of making an act of restitution towards the owner, by reimbursing them with the original product itself, or an equivalent sum of money to make up for the value of the stolen or lost object; those required to do so include persons who commanded, recommended, consented, praised, defended, or participated such an action. At minimum Fr. Dominic Prummer, OP makes note that the virtual intention to make restitution more than makes up for the act of actual restitution itself.
However, in the case of fansubbing, this is practically difficult to manage since its organization is not limited to one entity, but hundreds of independent groups; thus making it virtually impossible for companies to chase down a collective lawsuit against them without incurring a significant financial loss. Despite the huge potential financial hit taken, very few, if any, attempts have been made to slow down the rise of such organizations as well as websites hosting such works in the hopes of appeasing the anime fanbase. Although attempts such as the traditional “cease and desist” letter have been launched against them from time to time, they have proven largely ineffective at preventing newer fansubbing groups/streaming sites from turning up elsewhere. It is for these reasons why the recent takedown of kissanime.ru proved to be a shocker to a lot of people; because of how unexpected it came about, especially in light of the perceived general leeway given. Nevertheless, it ought to stand that participation in such actions is not only morally wrong, but potentially risky – especially when these “cease and desist” letters come to play.
A person participates in unjust damage either by receiving part of what has been stolen or by helping another in his unjust action. In the first instance he must restore all that he has received; if he took part in doing harm to another he must repair all the harm of which he was the effectual cause by his action and for which he incurred theological fault.Fr. Dominic Prummer OP, Handbook Of Moral Theology (1957, pg. 125)
TO WATCH OR NOT TO WATCH ANIME
The question regarding someone who watches anime from a site like kissanime.ru is one that I have loomed over a bit since it was asked in the wake of the aforementioned incident: namely, would they also be complicit in sharing in the guilt that the fansub distributors hold? Although from a first glance that the answer seems to be “yes”, in my opinion it’s actually more complex than that. Two facets of Catholic moral theology involved in this question are that of formal/material cooperation, and the principle of double effect.
Theologians typically divide up the gravity of someone’s cooperation in a particular sinful act to two main groups: formal, and material. According to Fr. Henry Davis, SJ:
Co-operation is formal when A helps B in an external sinful act, and intends the sinfulness of it… material when A helps B to accomplish an external act by doing an act which is not sinful, and without approving what B does.
This material co-operation is immediate if it is co-operation in the sinful act of another… mediate if it is an act that is secondary and subservient to the main act of another (such as to supply a burglar with tools for his burglary).
Mediate co-operation is proximate if the help given is very intimately connected with the act of another, as to hold a ladder for the burglar as he climbs up to a window for the purpose of burglary… remote if it is not closely connected with the other’s act, as to purchase tools for a burglar.Fr. Henry Davis SJ, Moral And Pastoral Theology (1935, pg. 341)
An example of formal co-operation would be driving someone to an abortion clinic, helping someone rob another’s place of residence, or assisting someone to cheat their way to a million dollars at a quiz show (cf. Charles Ingram in 2001). Material co-operation, on the other hand, typically is of lesser degree and examples include letting someone borrow a hammer, not knowing that they will use it to break into a store, or paying taxes to a government which will use them to finance an unjust war; in each of these cases the person performing the action did not fully intend the ends by which the materials will be used, and cannot be seen as participative in the perpetrator’s activities. The gravity of formal/material co-operation is as follows:
Formal co-operation in the sin of another is always sinful; it is a sin against charity and also against the virtue violated by the act.
Material co-operation in the sin of another is in general sinful, but not if the following two conditions are simultaneously verified:
a) That the act by which we co-operate is in itself not sinful. This act has two effects; we need not necessarily wish or intend the bad effect.Fr. Henry Davis SJ, Moral and Pastoral Theology (1935, pg. 342)
b) That there should be a sufficient cause for permitting the sin of another
Given these principles, where would “watching anime from an illegal site” fall under? First of all, we know that typical folks who watch anime on these sites have no relation to the people who originally produced the content, so it cannot be deemed as a formal co-operation in theft. Likewise, the act of watching anime is typically not sinful, unless if the show is known to be of loose morals. Given that most folks who watch anime typically do not intend to encourage piracy directly, I think this issue would generally fall under the absolute lowest category of co-operation, known as remote material co-operation. I would even argue that watching anime from an illegal site, such as kissanime.ru or something similar, would not be sinful, and therefore meet the “sufficient cause” outlined by Fr. Henry Davis if:
- You use it to highlight an important life lesson or acquire the practice of a particular virtue thanks to the good conduct of one of the characters in your personal life (this is what I try to do)
- You intend to make some amends to whatever losses could have come about by buying official merchandise or supporting the creators alternatively
- The costs / time to find shows legally would be unreasonable and unaffordable on your end
- The show has not aired on television for at least 7 years; some examples include, but are not limited to Digimon Adventure, Spirited Away, Nichijou, etc.
The examples of possible sufficient causes, while not complete, flow from the principle of double effect, first described by St. Thomas Aquinas as when one commits a morally neutral act to achieve a good cause, without directly willing a bad side effect. Hence, based on this I believe that if one can achieve this in some way when watching anime from such places, they will be able to distance themselves from the guilt accrued by the original means by which the sub was produced.
When treating of charity we saw that it was never lawful to co-operate formally in another’s sin, but that according to the principle of a double effect it is sometimes allowed to co-operate materially in the sin of another. This doctrine may be applied to the matter before us, and so though it is never lawful to help another to do what is always and intrinsically wrong, as to kill an innocent person, yet in other cases it is not sinful to co-operate materially with the unjust action of another.Fr. Thomas Slater SJ, A Manual Of Moral Theology (1925, pg. 271-272)
I remember on Canada Day 2019, when I was in line with my best friend to get a free meal at a nearby Chinese buffet, I overheard three men talking about the latest episode of the second season of One Punch Man. Thinking about that moment now reminded me of how far anime has come since its heydays in the 1970s, as seen through the huge amount of anime merchandise being sold online and in stores as well as conventions being packed to the brim each year. Granted, the prevalence of fansubs do have a role in accelerating that; but that’s not to say “the ends justify the means”. It’s unfortunate that the tough copyright laws forced fans to rely on this measure to spread its popularity across. Hopefully one day there will arise a greater collaboration between anime fans and distributors to provide a means by which anime can be easily, and legally accessible for everyone – and moreover, that whatever they produce can be of spiritual benefit to the viewer, as St. Francis De Sales’ advises:
Thus it is, my daughter, that good thoughts and holy aspirations may be drawn from all that surrounds us in our ordinary life. Woe to them that turn aside the creature from the Creator, and thrice blessed are they who turn all creation to their Creator’s Glory, and make human vanities subservient to the truth. “Verily,” says Saint Gregory Nazianzen, “I am wont to turn all things to my spiritual profit.”St. Francis De Sales, Introduction To The Devout Life, Chapter 13