What are they?
Fansub - A Japanese anime with dialogue that has been translated and subtitled into another language by fans (hence the name). This is then copied and distributed for free via DVD or online.
Scanlation - A Japanese manga which has been scanned into a computer and the text translated into another language by fans. This is then distributed online for free.
A Brief History of Fansubs
Fansubs as we know them started life in America back in the days when very
little anime was available in the West. Enthusiasts would record a
show from public access television or from abroad, and then use video
editing equipment to subtitle it. The resulting fan-subtitled
videos were copied to new videotapes and shown at conventions or
distributed amongst fans. There was an unwritten rule that people
should only charge for the cost of the tape, and as the video quality
degraded with each copy the fansubs had a limited lifespan. It
wasn't long before other countries started to do the same thing, and
although they were illegal, anime distributors tolerated them and turned
a blind eye. After all, tapes didn't last too long and had small
distributions that posed little threat to official releases. If
fact they could be used as free market research to indicate the titles
that fans wanted, so to start with they were beneficial to distributors
and fans alike. However, digital technology soon threw a spanner
in the works.
The advent of DVD and digital video not only meant that the fansubs could be copied infinitely without losing quality, but also took control away from the original fansubbers. Once an episode was subbed and released it could be distributed by anyone, unscrupulous individuals could even copy them to DVDs and sell them. It was with the advent of broadband that fansubs really took off, large video files could suddenly be transferred and shared quickly and easily through peer-to-peer programs and video editing software meant that you no longer had to have specialist equipment to produce them. The official distributors couldn't match the fansubbers for speed either - an episode could be subtitled and released within hours of hitting the airwaves in Japan, whereas a DVD release would take months or even years. Fansubbing probably reached its peak in the in the mid to late 2000's, declining slightly after several high-profile legal battles between the music industry, file sharing websites and server hosts. Countless fansub groups continue to operate but have far shorter windows of opportunity nowadays and face increased competition from official distributors moving into the online arena.
Fansubs and scanlations are illegal, and always have been. Japan, the UK and the USA have all signed up to the Berne Convention, an international copyright agreement which means that a copyrighted work from one country is copyrighted in the others as well. There is no grey area, those who create fansubs and scanlations are copying, editing and distributing copyrighted material without a license to do so, and are therefore breaking the law.
So why do people get away with it?
Enforcement of copyright is the responsibility of the copyright holder, which in these cases is the Japanese distributor unless a Western company has obtained a license from them. Japanese companies have generally left overseas prosecutions to overseas distributors, but fansubbers generally stop producing and distributing a title once it has been officially licensed in their home country. This means that they avoid legal action but the damage is already done - the fansubbed episodes are no longer under their control and are freely distributed by individuals, who are harder to identify and prosecute than an organised group. However, times are changing, and with overseas markets increasingly important to the anime industry Japanese companies are taking more action to enforce their copyrights abroad. In most cases they issue 'cease and desist' notices to fansub groups, who usually comply, and Western companies have begun to license series a lot earlier, which acts as a further deterrent.
We Only Download Because Companies Charge too Much!
Anime and manga prices in the UK are much cheaper than they've ever been.
At one time you would have to pay £15 for a VHS tape containing two
dubbed episodes of an anime, now you can buy a 26 episode series with
multiple audio tracks on DVD for £30. Very few anime DVDs contain
less than four episodes nowadays, most feature a host of extra features
and with Blu-Ray just around the corner DVDs are only going to get
cheaper. Less than 10 years ago a typical manga volume would cost
£13, now the average price is £7. Companies are increasingly
moving into online distribution, with anime and manga now available
online - legally - for free viewing, often within a day of the Japanese
release. Manga is also freely available from UK libraries in much
higher volumes than ever before, and anime can be rented from
LoveFilm or Blockbuster for just a few pounds, making this
argument pretty redundant.
It doesn't hurt anyone!
Yes it does. Overseas distributors pay Japanese companies for the
license to release anime and manga series in their home country.
The money they pay goes to the anime and manga producers in Japan,
helping them fund future projects. The simple truth is that many
fans download far more anime than they buy, and that lost revenue has
hit both Western and Japanese anime companies, reducing their ability to
ride out the current recession. The direct effect has been that
anime production in Japan has reduced and the number of UK licenses has
dropped. There have also been indirect effects, for example the
cost of licensing the anime series Naruto was massively inflated
after the Japanese distributors saw how popular the fansubbed release
was. Industry insiders have indicated that the official release of
the series was delayed for several years as no-one could afford to
license it, and when they did get it sales were lower than they could
have been as many fans already owned it illegally.
Distributors are catching up with the technology and using online video streaming as an alternative to television syndication. As the number of free anime and manga titles available legally online increases fansubs and scanlations will become increasingly redundant, and their mass appeal will decline. Distributors will eventually take a tougher stance on those that persist and particularly on file sharers - the times are changing.
How to spot fansubs
Fansubs are mainly be available from fansub groups' website or through peer-to-peer file sharing programs and websites. Official distributors will not use these for their releases. The majority of legal downloads are not free, so most things that you can download and keep will be fansubs, unless you are getting them through download-to-own websites like iTunes or a distributor's own website. Fansub groups generally add their own credits to a video too.
How to spot scanlations
Most official online manga releases only allow you to read a manga on a
website, not download it. You generally have to pay for official
manga downloads, through websites like iTunes. Like fansubs,
scanlations usually include a credits page for the scanlation group and
are most frequently available through the group's own website or tracker
websites. Official releases will be through major download-to-own
websites or through the publisher's own official website.