The late, lamented (by some) HTMLcomics.com looked like a bootleg site. Most manga scan sites do not. They feature nicely designed home pages, a scattering of unobtrusive ads, and an impressive array of manga. In addition to series that haven't been officially licensed yet, they post recent chapters of Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece from the latest issues of the Japanese Shonen Jump and full volumes of older series, not fan translations but simple scans from the American editions. It's all free, and the interface is simple and easy to use. Several of the sites even have iPod and iPad apps that draw from their databases. It all looks legit, and many users may not realize they are reading their manga on a bootleg site. In fact, one of them even has the following legal disclaimer (name of site obscured to avoid giving them any more publicity):
MangaXXX and all of it's original content and images are the sole property of the staff of this site and it's contributors. Furthermore, MangaXXX is protected by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Unauthorized use of any original pieces originating from MangaXXX are subject to criminal and civil penalties. If it is found that you have taken original work from MangaXXX, you will be asked to remove it willingly and peacefully within 24 hours, or risk possible legal action against you or your website.
This is hilarious on many levels, from the misuse of "it's" (no apostrophe in the possessive—don't they teach that in law school?) to the fact that what MangaXXX is doing is in fact prohibited, not protected, by the DMCA, to the mere idea that a site that consists almost entirely of stolen content would attempt to take legal action against anyone who stole their "original work."
Yesterday, the manga publishers fired the first shot across the bow by announcing they had formed a coalition to "take aggressive action" against 30 sites that it has identified as infringing their copyrights. A quick check this morning showed that the better-known ones were all still up and running, and no one had taken down the latest chapter of Naruto; if they are quaking in their boots, they are hiding it well.
Deb Aoki gives a bit of context:
Until recently, individual publishers have had limited success getting their licensed titles removed from these websites. For example, Dark Horse and Yen Press successfully petitioned Onemanga.com to remove titles like Gantz and Black Butler from their online rosters. But despite these efforts, only a handful of titles have been removed out of hundreds listed.
Those who enjoy a lengthy discussion with lots of back-and-forth should head over to the ANN forums, where the debate is raging hot and heavy between defenders of copyright and those who simply cannot live without the latest chapter of Naruto. Here's the very first comment:
People are still going to find ways to get things out online. Even if a scan viewing site goes down, you can still find a 3rd party to download the files.
Though this is a big step in solving everything, publishers and English c.o's need to get on the bandwagon and offer weekly series they publish on a week to week release online so people don't have to go get fan scans. I mean I can dream right?
For the Readers Digest version, check out the first eight comments at The Beat, in which scan sites are defended, attacked, and dismissed in short order.
PWCW manga writer Kai-Ming Cha summarizes the way scanlations have morphed from hobby to big business:
Scanlation used to be something like a mixed tape – pass it around, share it. Friend to friend, fan to fan. And then the little guy was absorbed by the big guy. And now aggregator sites make money off of pirated manga. And apps have been built to better access those aggregator sites. And publishers issuing cease and desist letters to scanlators are getting a strange response (in at least one case that I know of) where the scanlator has already pulled the scans of the license property years ago, but the scans have become viral – and collected by a big aggregator....
Scanlation wasn’t always piracy. In early stages, it was Robin Hood. But now, instead of stealing and giving, it’s stealing and selling. And that’s what makes it criminal. Someone else who didn’t even make the scans, someone who doesn’t even care about manga but cares a whole lot about making a buck, is making money off of something that you, a fan, love.
An actual scanlator checks in at Japanator and says more or less the same thing:
Somewhere along the line, the point of scanlations was lost and was no longer about sharing a series that wasn't available in English. It was just to get stuff out to be popular and licenses be damned.
Doesn't help that the fanbase also feels entitled to get everything asap and for free. Having a series licensed is treated like it's a bad thing because they now have to pay to read something that wasn't free to begin with.
They forget that someone had to buy that big volume of Jump or the tankoubon in Japan and that's how the publishers and mangaka make their money.
Sean Kleefeld offers a subtler take: As a writer whose own work has been stolen, he gets why the publishers are doing this, but he also has downloaded a few bootleg comics himself, and he understands the draw:
I still get how people would go down that path. I still get how heady idealism can become more mutable. I get how "want" can become "need." I get that, given the pervasiveness of legitimately free content online, it can be hard to distinguish between what's legal and not.
And for that reason, he thinks that no matter how much legal action the publishers take, these sites will just pop up again and again. Which is probably true, but the harder they are to get to (right now, many pop up as the first or second result for the manga title in Google) the smaller the audience will be.