Disclaimer: This short essay is not going to be discussing the details of production, the morality of piracy, nor is this a call out to anybody in particular. This essay is a discussion about culture and reassessing our approach to the discourse in general.
One of the things that have been bothering me for a while about the anime community has been the discussion about piracy. The discussions that we have time and time again do not really seem to go anywhere. It is not the impasses themselves that bother me, but the mentality that we have towards it. Older anime fans have a mentality to this that reflect an appreciation of how we consume much differently than we have in the past. I am apart of this group myself and distinctly remember a time when my parents recorded programs and bought VHS tapes for my brother and me to watch our favorite shows on. I remember the only way that I could read manga was through my local public libraries. Some older anime fans do not appreciate this as much, of course, but generally speaking, if you were an anime fan in the 80s, 90s, and even early 2000s, watching anime definitely had its inconveniences. One of the inconveniences was price. To collect VHS collections, DVDs, and now Blu-Rays, all of this would set you back a week’s worth of groceries just to get a few episodes per purchase. There used to be an inside joke that we had in the fandom that: “Anime: crack is cheaper”. Aspects of this joke are still true, but generally speaking to even enjoy the medium outside of cable TV (if you had access to such a luxury), consuming anime just was not viable outside of an upper-middle-class experience.
Nowadays, we have streaming for much cheaper, which has allowed much more people to enter the fandom. While it is cheaper to afford a legal streaming service, you are going to be missing out on many different popular titles across different services. There is a new meme declaring that: “The Streaming Wars have begun”. As sad as that is, keeping up with the most popular titles now span across different services. To make sure that one stays in touch with their circle of friends, usually keeping up with the latest popular anime is the go-to way to enjoy the medium in a quick way among friends (which have always been and always will be the initial interaction one tries to have when entering in or trying to dive deeper into the medium). This is a predicament that is often overlooked it seems. The burden to catch up with the bleeding edge of pop culture in this niche medium requires us to at least subscribe to Crunchyroll/VRV, Funimation, Netflix, or any other decent streaming service that services outside of the US like AnimeLab. This predicament leads people who desire this social interaction to try to find an alternative if they cannot afford 1–3 subscription services. Some piggyback off of a friend’s account (most do this for Netflix as is), some drop out of the medium and/or fandom altogether, or may seek the “free” alternative of piracy. The latter is where we see conflict despite piggy-backing often being a clear violation of a service’s terms of service (the fine print that nobody reads).
I often do not buy a person’s defense of piracy when it is just a concern about conservation. I am also in favor of conservation myself and recognize the clear need for titles that are in limbo due to licenses not being renewed. Licensing is a messy topic that I will not dive into, but the conservation argument does have merit if it is a discussion about conservation, not in the context of piracy. Often times, conservationism is used as a selfish pretext that is stripped of context for a person’s situation. Many people will be straightforward and give their reasons for piracy often ranging from region locking (a licensing issue), being too young to pay for one’s own subscription (a dubious excuse to deal with), and sometimes dropping the pretext altogether with a complete selfish disregard for anybody but themselves (aka the anti-social argument). My issue with piracy discourse has admittedly evolved over the years from shaming people into caring about the production side of things. However, that line of thinking is problematic as well (which is something I will get into another time).
What is necessary to recognize whenever we talk to one another about such issues like piracy is realistically the economic conditions a person has. One thing to contextualize is the mass appeal of mass media. Anime may be a nice interest and hobby, but it is mass media gaining popularity every year now. Nowadays, we can’t think in terms of the upper-middle class scope of affordability. While the average subscription service ranges in price between $7-$15 every month, to get a full social experience, one needs to subscribe to multiple services. The price does add up. It is a price that is still inaccessible. More than half of workers in the US alone make $30k every year. 2/3 of households in the US alone cannot afford groceries. 40% of Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency expense. At least half a million and more Americans experience medical bankruptcy (still damning even under scrutiny) and so on so forth, the list of telltale signs of economic desperation goes. While these things may not seem like they are immediately relevant to the piracy discussion, income inequality is a real bedrock issue that intersects with many areas — even an area like affording a commodity like a subscription service. I encourage everybody to start keeping this in mind when discussing piracy — especially the usual talking point about affordability. We need to consider: “affordable for whom?”. When most of the United States (let alone other poorer countries) struggles with basic necessities, we need to be more considerate of this aspect of the conversation.
That brings me to address the cultural angle of the piracy discourse. Whenever the topic arises, we have a tendency to think in all too narrow of a scope strictly related to our own personal experiences and thoughts about the anime industry overall. It is a natural thing that happens in any discussion, but it is one we need to work on as a community. We need to not only think about the people who make the media that we love, but we also need to think about one another. This is a difficult thing to ask considering that this request invokes challenging our basic assumptions about the world (our worldview) as well as our political inclinations (ideology), but it is a necessary one to fight back against piracy and find solutions to the issue (which is something I will cover in another essay). This should be an issue that brings solidarity among us rather than an issue that divides. The only thing separating this difference is our approach. To recognize income inequality as a source of piracy is to recognize many other issues that, admittedly, not all of us are ready to confront. We need to have the courage and bravery to challenge ourselves, to lift one another up, and to brainstorm and organize with one another to overcome.
I wanted to at least have this short essay call income inequality to attention as a thing that we bring up and focus more on whenever we discuss piracy. We need to get more people to recognize one another as workers being subjugated by forces bigger than any single individual choice that we make, not as anything else that we currently assume out of one another now.
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