Anxious times in the cartoon underground

BitTorrent file swapping has been a lifeline for American fans of Japanese anime. Now that success may be backfiring. Images: The world of anime

In early December, a bombshell dropped onto one of the fastest-growing file-swapping communities online, where Nikolai Nolan has made his home for the last several years.

Nolan, a 22-year-old student at the University of Michigan, is one of the leaders of Anime-Faith, one of hundreds of groups that take Japanese cartoons, translate and subtitle them in English, and release them freely on the Net.

For years this "fansubbing" community has believed that Japanese animation studios tacitly condoned their online activities, at least as long as the shows hadn't yet been released in the United States. But in early December, a studio called Media Factory began sending letters to a handful of big anime fan sites ordering them to stop distributing or linking to copies of its works online.


What's new:
Big anime fan sites are being orded to stop distributing and linking to copies of the popular Japanese cartoons.

Bottom line:
The role of the anime fan communities has become a critical factor in the success of some media companies--and a thorn in the sides of others.

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News of the letters helped splinter Anime-Faith and triggered an impassioned debate across the broader community. Some people wanted to stop translating and distributing Media Factory's works immediately, respecting the studio's request. Others argued that the studio hadn't sought out the actual groups doing the translating, and so might still turn a blind eye to their work.

"We decided we should still promote the series," said Nolan, whose group is continuing its translations. "If we receive a letter ourselves, then we'll stop."

With echoes of Hollywood's recent attack on mainstream film-swapping, the Media Factory episode has shaken the complacency of the fast-growing anime file-swapping community. But the event is also triggering broader discussions over the role of the Internet fan communities that have become such a critical factor in the success of some media companies and a thorn in the sides of others.

Hard numbers are always hard to come by. But on one of the most widely used hubs for swapping, which uses the BitTorrent file-distribution technology, more than 120,000 anime cartoon episodes are downloaded a day using the site's tools alone. That amounts to more than 90 terabytes of data a day, the site's statistics show. (For comparison purposes, that's the equivalent of about 22 million MP3 songs.)

But as the Anime-Faith debate showed, this is a very different kind of file-swapping community than the average group downloading the latest Usher song.

Fans of anime--Japanese cartoons that range from the simplicity of Speed Racer to the complex art and storytelling of the more recent film-length "Spirited Away"--are notoriously passionate about their hobby. The borrowed Japanese word "otaku" describes the kind

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