Debate: Does the “Artist Tax” Negate Pirating?

Princess Jellyfish - Cast

Recently, my best friend came to visit me for a week and -as is tradition whenever we see each other- we marathoned a show together. This time we settled on watching Princess Jellyfish, one of my favorite anime, despite the fact that it only has one animated season and none of the manga is legally available in English.

Afterward, my best friend (who is an animator by trade) declared that she was going to read the manga online. I instinctively cringed because I’m almost never keen on piracy of any kind, but then she introduced me to the concept of the “Artist Tax.”

The idea of the Artist Tax is to counteract some of the negative aspects of consuming pirated media by deliberately going out and supporting the work financially as soon as possible. In this case, it would mean my best friend would read the Princess Jellyfish manga via scanlation site, then buy either the official Princess Jellyfish DVDs or a copy of the manga in a different language when she has the money to do so.

Not a bad idea, at least from a consumer’s perspective. It eases the guilt of anyone who wants to pirate anime or manga that’s not been released in their region/language, and it supports creators financially. And for series that might never see the light of day stateside, it might the only option a manga fan might have to read what they want without doing as much damage.

From an industry perspective, especially an American manga industry perspective, it only solves one problem out of many. Even though the Artist Tax supports some of the creators, publishers, animation studios, etc., it doesn’t necessarily support the American industry. In the case of Princess Jellyfish, it did because I have the nice Funimation box set. But not all titles have something that’s been published stateside. It also drives up the page views for the piracy sites, which allows them to thrive, produce more pirated material and potentially take away profits from the American industry. Not to mention the fact that the more something has been pirated, particularly if there’s no sizable fandom dropping money on related products, the less attractive it might look to American publishers. Plus, this is all self-policed. People could swear up and down that they support the artists, but won’t when the time comes.

Now for the debate portion!

What do you think of the Artist Tax? Would you do it? Do you think it’s a slightly better way of pirating material, at least for invested fans who are concerned about supporting the creators? Or does it seem like just an empty gesture to you?

As a manga fan who buys legally 99.999999% of the time and rarely pirates anything, I would consider reading scanlations of series I was very interested in and self-enforcing the Artist Tax. And I know I would actually self-enforce because I care about the health of the anime and manga industry, both in Japan and stateside. (I’ve done it with a few titles like A Bride’s Story before I’d heard about the Artist Tax.) Plus I would specifically read series that I thought had a very small chance of getting to the States, like Princess Jellyfish or Saint Young Men. But I also have an advantage because I live 20 minutes away from a Kinokuniya, which makes paying the Artist Tax a little easier when I can only buy the Japanese tankobon.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

About Daniella Orihuela-Gruber

Daniella is a freelance manga editor and blogger. She likes collecting out of print manga and playing with her puppy. Yes, someone got her a puppy already.
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12 Responses to Debate: Does the “Artist Tax” Negate Pirating?

  1. Courtney says:

    I should clarify what I use the artist tax for.
    I don’t use it to negate the effects of piracy — I use it to enrich my life, as well as help an artist continue making what he or she loves to make. I almost never do anything to support piracy, including pirating things myself. I pay for the things I plan to enjoy. Simple as that. This goes for programs, music, television, film, and books.
    The art tax, for me, is a self-imposed tax that serves to remind me to spend some money on something that would benefit artists in some way. That can be donating $50 to Night Vale’s podcast, buying art at artist’s alley at a con, purchasing a new soundtrack or record from a musician, supporting a kickstarter, or even as simple as buying the blu-ray of my favorite cartoon series. I do this monthly when I have the funds to do so.
    Now, I’m the friend you mentioned in this article, and I felt I had to clarify what an art tax is for me, personally. It isn’t a checks-and-balances system. I can’t rob from one artist and make it up to another. It just doesn’t work that way. The art tax has little to do with Princess Jellyfish, except that the blu ray box set is on my list of things I’ll need to buy with my art tax in the future.
    HOWEVER… I did read Jellyfish Princess online. I did this because the manga is not available in English, nor has it been licensed to my knowledge, and I had no other way of consuming this artist’s work. The minute — the very SECOND it comes out in English, I’ll buy it, of course. I’ve done the same for every series I’ve enjoyed before it was licensed in the states. However, if it is available to me to enjoy in a legal fashion, even if difficult to obtain, I will not consume it until I have done my legal duty the artist and paid for the goods.
    By reading Princess Jellyfish now, I have made a promise to myself and to the artist that I will purchase her work as soon as it is made available legally in our country. I’ve done this with every manga I’ve ever read online. Yes, that is art tax money, but that isn’t out of guilt for doing something less than legally.
    That isn’t to say you can’t use the art tax in the fashion you described! Everyone treats their art tax differently. For me, it’s to ensure that artists can continue to make art, while enriching my own existence with their work. For others, it can be to negate piracy. And that’s fine!

    • Well said! But when applied to works of anime/manga that aren’t in English yet, I think it’s safe to say that this method both enriches one’s life with the creators’ work and lessens the financial impact of piracy on the creator.

  2. addie says:

    The “Artist Tax” is better than nothing…but not necessarily much better, especially if you’re talking about buying the North American release of an anime in order to support a manga.

    Going out and buying Princess Jellyfish puts some money in FUNimation’s pocket, and the pockets of the committee that created the anime in Japan. That committee probably includes the original creator, but it ALSO includes some twenty or so other companies that put in money. The original creator might get mere fractions of a penny on the dollar.

    Importing the manga would provide a better payment for the mangaka and the support staff for the manga specifically.

    • I’d say the benefit to buying the North American release of an anime in order to support a manga is a little larger than you think.

      1. Buying the anime tells the North American industry that there are fans spending money on this property. Hey! Maybe someone should license that manga! That would lead to direct benefits for the mangaka.

      2. There are many more creative professionals that work on an anime, so you are not just supporting the original mangaka, but the animators, voice actors, etc. I am down for that.

      3. A popular anime means more benefits for the mangaka in general. (i.e. More people wanting to publish their works and such.)

      So, yes, not as much of an impact as importing the manga, but still a positive impact. Also it might be the only viable way for some people to participate in this concept, so there’s that.

      I should also note that I managed to buy a copy of the Princess Jellyfish manga in French, as the opportunity arose while I was in Paris last year, so I have given back to the artist in a more direct fashion as well.

  3. Kathryn says:

    I spent seven years learning Japanese, and now I import everything from Japan via, which is extremely expensive (although not as expensive as flying to Japan, which I also do). I was able to study Japanese and am now able to purchase Japanese books by virtue of generous research funds, which I have literally devoted my life to acquiring and maintaining. As a result, I don’t pirate Japanese media – ever! – but not everyone can (or should!) go out for a PhD in Japanese literature just so that they can satisfy their manga cravings.

    The solution here is twofold. First, we need Babelfish-like universal translators implanted directly into our brains, like, yesterday. Second, I don’t care if it drives some people insane, as in Stephen King’s short story “The Jaunt,” but we need public-access teleportation-based transit services, like, the day before yesterday. It shouldn’t be so difficult to learn Japanese, and it shouldn’t be so expensive to travel to Japan or to ship printed material from Japan.

    If you think I am joking or being snarkily ironic in the above paragraph, please allow me to disabuse you of that notion. As much as I dislike media piracy, I dislike shipping fees, tariffs, customs forms, 14-hour plane rides, and teaching first-year Japanese (using textbooks that cost upwards of $150) even more.

    Therefore, in the absence of the relevant transhuman technologies, I’m going to say that the shadow economies of scanlation, while far from ideal, serve an important purpose in signal boosting the cultural capital of Japan-related media products in the United States. Of course, it would be nice if Tokyopop were still fully in business (I loved their OEL manga), and if Vertical had more money to play with (so they could publish more fiction and longer manga series), and if Viz were still putting out their monthly Shojo Beat magazine (which I adored beyond all reason). Still, it’s nice to see the attendance of anime conventions rising year by year, and to see the enormous presence of Japan-inspired (for lack of a better word) art on Tumblr and in art magazines and on gallery walls, and to see legit animation studios launch properties like Stephen Universe and Bee & Puppycat. I’m more of a cultural theorist than an economist, but I think the transnational implications of Japan’s so-called “gross national cool” are going to echo far into the future as the scanlation kids grow up and start earning viable incomes. Moreover, we’re even now starting to see aspects of Japanese “media mix” model of marketing strategy slowly gain a foothold in the way that American media properties are produced. It’s really cool, and I have high hopes for the future!

    Also, I’d like to posit a concept that I and my friends call “piracy for great social justice.” Let’s say there is an extremely problematic film that we absolutely *do not* want to support by contributing to opening weekend sales or Netflix view counts. We’re interested in the film, both because we want to critique it intelligently and because we’re human and we fall victim to flashy trailers even though we know the movie is going to be bad. How do we gain access to this media property without supporting it or its producers in any way? This is especially relevant when it comes to mega-corporations like Disney. Sure, you want money to flow to the individual creators and animators who work on those films, even if you don’t agree with the message or ideological undertones of the films themselves, but wouldn’t it be nice if Disney and its subsidiaries had less of a stranglehold on the market so that individual creators and animators could acquire capital to launch their own companies without having to engage in prolonged legal battles with their former employer?

    In any case, one thing I would really like to see in order to have a more informed opinion on the effects of scanlation is more concrete data. Not to name names, but certain publishing industry professionals (and not just in the manga licensing sector) have been vague alluding to falling sales and market forces, but they never give numbers or explain exactly what they mean. As opposed to Japan, where it’s relatively easy to get data on, for example, how many volumes of a certain manga were sold to bookstores or preordered on Amazon, there seems to be a veil of secrecy cloaking the publishing industry in the United States. It’s been my experience that finding the answer to a relatively simple yet important question – how does Amazon hurt small presses, exactly? – is impossible. I therefore wish there were more transparency and fewer nebulous accusations of “fans are ruining the industry,” because that is certainly not the case in Japan, at least not in terms of brute sales numbers.

    I apologize for this comment becoming a manifesto, but I’m currently working on a paper comparing the role of fans in the media economies of Japan and the United States. I hope to present it at the “Academic Anime” symposium at this year’s Los Angeles Anime Expo – wish me luck!

    And thank you, as always, for your thoughtful and thought-provoking post!

    • Kathryn says:

      In the second to last paragraph, I should have written, “Not to name names, but certain publishing industry professionals (and not just in the manga licensing sector) have been vaguely alluding to falling sales and oppositional market forces for years, but they never give numbers or explain exactly what they mean.”

      Arg, I wrote this too early in the morning.

      And I’ll go ahead and name one name: Ed Chavez. If I could sit down and have a long conversation one person alive on the earth today, it would probably be him; I would love to know more about what he’s thinking and where he’s coming from.

      • Yeah, I agree about there not being an transparency in terms of numbers. But I think that many publishers withhold from the public because of the relationship they have with the Japanese publishers. They probably just want to save face.

        Having had the pleasure of a little bit of industry chatter with Ed, I would agree that getting to sit down with him and hear everything would be really cool. He knows his stuff.

    • Thank you for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking response! I basically agree with you on everything, especially the public access teleportation.

      Alas, such technologies don’t exist yet. Or if they do, no one’s made it public yet.

  4. Glosoli says:

    Ideally everything we like would come out in English when we want it and we could purchase it legally…but since it doesn’t, I wouldn’t judge anyone for using “artist tax.” I hate reading things on screens, so I try to wait for it to come out in English, but in the case of Nana I was so enrapt in the story that I couldn’t wait. But I bought the volumes as they came out.

    I don’t think you should feel guilty for doing it. If you are supporting the artist in some way, that’s all that really matters.

  5. Krystina says:

    I’ve actually found that over time when it comes to media of all types, I’m less and less prone to relying on piracy to get what I want. It probably helps that, unlike when I was a teenager, I can actually earn my own money to buy the things I want. But I think there are a lot of services now that didn’t exist when I was younger that make it easier for me to go through legal options… even if these options still aren’t the best for artists. For instance, I gradually turned away from P2P programs to buying tracks off iTunes, but then stopped buying individual tracks and CDs when Spotify showed up, which allows me to listen to a wide variety of music legally, though not in the most beneficial way to artists (who would probably prefer I stopped listening to their album for the 100th time on Spotify and bought it already).

    When it comes to manga, if there’s a series I really like, I’ll go out of my way to buy the series in English or Japanese (or often, both). I’m not ashamed that I picked up learning Japanese because the manga industry in the US wasn’t moving fast enough for me. The problem is I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument that solves the issue of manga series that just won’t ever make it to the US, maybe because the series is too long (Hajime no Ippo), or the series is a genre that doesn’t appeal strongly to US audiences (most seinen and josei manga, most sports manga), or the fandom is just too small. I’m not sure what options I have to read these series in a language I can understand other than to rely on piracy. I personally am involved in producing scanlations for a very obscure yaoi series, which probably wouldn’t have an audience outside of Japan otherwise, and is unlikely to ever get published… I buy all the books and magazines it’s published in and have successfully encouraged others to do so. But it’s not an ideal situation at all. I do my best to do a quality scanlation but I know it’s not the quality I’d like for such a great series to have.

    I’d like to see something similar to Marvel’s Unlimited service, that allows access to a catalog of titles for a monthly/annual fee… I think this already exists actually with sites like Crunchyroll, but the library is very limited. There needs to be a service with a larger library, but I know this is probably not financially feasible to most manga publishers.

    A turn-off for me is being interested in a series that is long enough that trying to pick up a lot of volumes would rapidly become prohibitively expensive for a series I’m not sure I’ll even like (*coughAttackonTitancough*). A lot of times I use scanlations almost like a library to find titles I like; if I don’t like it, I didn’t lose anything in process; if I do like it, I usually buy the books. Another problem is when I like a series that would be insane to actually collect; for instance, there are 72 volumes of Naruto. I was eventually able to support the series by subscribing to Shonen Jump, but I still would never have been able to afford to catch up without scanlations.

    The whole thing is so shady. I don’t know what the solution is. 🙁 I just want to read great series and support the artists. Sometimes there are obstacles in that process that I wish weren’t there, and didn’t involve my stinginess.

    • I would argue that even though you’re participating in scanlations, you are making a good effort to support that obscure yaoi series financially. Maybe the number of readers the scanlations get cancels out the people that buy it, but you’ve done your best to encourage the opposite and can make peace with it.

      The problem with longer series or titles that don’t have much appeal to Western audiences is that someone still has to pick up the tab for producing those series in English. Manga production is not cheap between the licensing fees and production team (and potential printing costs if it’s not a digital-only title.). And what if the series doesn’t make a return on investment? That’s why it’s just not worth it to companies to license a bunch of manga and why you won’t see a lot of Marvel Unlimited type services. Digital Manga Guild only works because people are basically giving away their time for pennies, and even then it’s not a subscription service.

      As for super long series like Attack on Titan or Naruto, I agree it’s a hardship collecting everything. But because there’s so much demand, it makes sense for the US manga companies to just go for it. They’ve got to have those big titles to keep the smaller titles that don’t make as much money. And not everyone is shy about picking up a long series. That may be a good opportunity for you to dabble in shorter titles. There’s some good stuff in there.

      Btw, if you ever want to check how long a series is going to be, is a valuable resource. They provide a lot of info on titles like who publishes it and how many volumes there are.

  6. Even though looking at this issue from a money-wise perspective is kind of selfish, overall I don’t know how to consider it any other way. Personally, my biggest problem is difference in currency and extremely high shipping fees (most of the time I pay more to shipping than the material itself) so manga and merchandise become really expensive. Considering the manga I consume is mostly in yaoi genre, I am 100% sure that a lot of them won’t even be considered as a potential for licensing. I am trying to learn Japanese, though I think we all know how challenging of a language it is.

    For supporting the artist, I think the only reasonable solution is to buy original Japanese manga and merchandise; as it is stated in some of the comments above, not to pay for the licensed one. I am aware that it’s a huge market in Japan but an emerging one in US, for a lot of series I see a big quality difference even in the design of the cover. I seriously wouldn’t consider getting the licensed one for a lot of series.

    Considering scanlation teams, I think releasing only English scanlations but not raws won’t have a negative effect on Japanese market; because, well, they don’t need it their manga in English. Worse is that people who cannot speak Japanese will only get a handful of manga solely for the purpose of collecting, if they can afford. It may even have a positive effect since after being able to read a lot more online, I always consider buying more. Scanlation only hurts the US market in the end.

    So, what needs to be changed is the point of view of consumers rather than trying to eliminate scanlation teams. A lot of people I exchange opinions with, doesn’t even understand the effort and hard work behind art and continue to assume everything they can find on the internet is a freebie. Even crediting the artist of a fanart is a big problem. If this were to change, more people would not even give it a second thought when purchasing the original copy when they can afford and have the idea of supporting the artist will be always in their minds. It’s even annoying for me to go on at it like ‘moneymoneymoney’ but just to give a small example for comparison; I am from Istanbul, Turkey and a regular tankoubon costs around 7$. That corresponds to 21TL here and you can eat two course meals (or one, in a rather more fancy restaurant) and Istanbul is the biggest city, meaning this is the most expensive as it can get for a meal in this country. Please bear in mind that this doesn’t include the shipping.

    I should emphasis this point again, I truly understand that this is a selfish way of thinking “I’ll just read the pirated one and help however I can.” because it could be negated immediately with “Well if you care so much then don’t read it pirated.”. It’s really a tough dilemma.

    I’ve been constantly thinking about this issue nowadays, thanks for writing such a great post on it!

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