The anime site Crunchyroll is Exhibit A for those who think digital distribution and copyright can coexist peacefully. The site began in 2006 as a place for anime fans to upload bootleg anime with fan-made subtitles (fansubs) but went legit in 2008, when they got some venture capital and swapped out the bootleg anime for the real stuff, making deals with the publishers to stream their content legally. It's as if OneManga.com cut a deal with Viz and Tokyopop to host their content, rather than illegal scans.
So why can't they do that with manga? Clearly the demand is there — witness the lengthy laments at the demise of OneManga. And indeed, Crunchyroll CEO Kun Gao discussed the possibility with Deb Aoki in an interview for her manga blog at About.com. Gao says the site won't actually host manga, but it recently snagged a $750,000 investment from the Japanese e-book publisher Bitway to develop manga publishing tools. Says Gao:
Crunchyroll is not licensing manga for distribution on our site. What we're doing is we're building the actual tools for readers, that is, the online manga viewer, as well as the systems for readers to subscribe to read this content, as well as how to manage online advertising; in other words, monetization mechanisms to enable other publishers, local distributors to add these features into their business by turning a key.
We basically want existing distributors to say, 'Oh, I want to start distributing digital manga on my website - potentially my own content or other content - and all I need to do is hook into the (Crunchyroll-developed) platform and start making money immediately.'
Interestingly, the Crunchyroll site will not be the portal to the web manga; Gao says there is already a consortium of Japanese publishers that are working on digital distribution and they will have their own website. And they are not licensing manga from Japan, but providing a platform for local licensors to distribute the works. So, for instance, they would work with Del Rey but not with Kodansha.
The advantage of such a system is that it could mimic the things everyone liked about OneManga: It wouldn't be limited to one publisher, as sites like SigIKKI and Yen Plus are now, and the manga could be made available for free (Crunchyroll has a two-tier system, allowing users to view week-old anime for free and paid members to access newer anime at higher resolutions). And if they could get each week's episode of Naruto posted faster than the scanlators, it just might allow the publishers to beat the pirates at their own game.
(Screen grab of Crunchyroll is from motochan.)