I just caught up with this article from Wired magazine on the relationship between the major Manga publishers and dojinshi, which is essentially fan-published manga that uses copyrighted characters.
Imagine Disney’s response if some huge comics convention in St. Louis or Houston were selling exquisitely rendered, easily identifiable comic book versions of Mickey Mouse and Goofy falling in love. Picture the legal department at United Feature Syndicate hearing about someone selling $6 books that show a buxom teenage Sally and a husky teenage Linus canoodling on a beach. The violations at Super Comic City were so brazen and the scale so huge — by day’s end, some 300,000 books sold in cash transactions totaling more than $1 million — that just about any US media company would have launched a full-metal lawsuit to shut the market for good.
Why aren’t Japanese publishers doing the same? I posed that question to two of the main organizers of Japan’s dojinshi gatherings, Kouichi Ichikawa and Keiji Takeda.
“This is something that satisfies the fans,” Ichikawa said. “The publishers understand that this does not diminish the sales of the original product but may increase them. So they don’t come down here and shut it down.”
The article goes on to describe this fan market something uniquely Japanese, and while that’s an interesting take, I also don’t believe that it’s actually true. The state of quasi-legal détente that the publishers have reached with the fans reminds me a lot of what’s happened with fan web sites, videos, and other remix media in the US over the last decade. After an initial defensive wave of lawsuits and legal threats there’s quite clearly an acceptance of the idea that fan produced content is a good thing, and help grow the audience, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand (whatever that means).
But, like all this post-modern media, it also blurs the line between where the “official” content ends and the fan content begins. The Heroes “fansite”, 9th Wonders is actually a professionally produced site that uses fan design as its model. It has all the features of fan produced media, but with the kind of glossy sheen and smooth edges that only Hollywood money can bring.
The danger to the publishers and producers is that the line between fans and pirates is also becomeing vanishingly small. After all, no one wants your media faster, and with fewer limitations than the fans who love it the most.
For an example, compare 9th wonders to Z-Cult. These are the guys who got busted by Marvel, DC, and others, for posting torrents of comic scans when they came hot off the shelves. There’s a lot of similarities, and that’s because passion doesn’t always respect the borders of the law, no matter what the RIAA may say.
And while Manga sales are growing on US store shelves, its brother market, Anime. It appears that, in the US at least, it’s transforming into a monstrous market of piracy that must remind the publishers of a mutant creature ripped straight from one of their shows.
It’s hard to guess where all this is going to lead over the next few years, although the general shape is starting to appear out of the mist… But at a minimum the big media companies need to follow the example of 9th Wonders, and start really thinking about creating destination sites on the web where they can be sure to gather together the fan base and give them their marching orders.