On Monday, August 9th, Sony officially bought anime streaming giant Crunchyroll from AT&T for $1.175 billion, planning to combine it with Funimation to create the best anime streaming service. While the combination of these two platforms seems like a great idea for consumers on paper, there’s still a common enemy across the industry that nobody has yet to find a solution for.
How will they beat pirating?
For decades, pirating anime has been a way of life for lots of consumers. Whether it’s crude translations on VHS that would take months to complete from the 90s or new episodes popping up on illegal streaming sites nowadays, the community has always found a way to sneak past the industry. While piracy used to be a necessity for shows with no foreign releases, anime’s explosion in popularity during the 1990s and 2000s led to more and more shows being aired on programs like Adult Swim and Toonami, satisfying a large number of viewers. With sites like Crunchyroll and Funimation becoming dedicated streaming services for anime in the 2010s, it would seem like piracy would be on its last legs. However, that’s far from the truth.
While hundreds of more shows have been given official western releases, the advancement of technology has meant that the groups of people who make fansubs are close to the same page as official distribution. Nowadays, fansubs can even be preferred over official subs because of things like censorship, which companies often do for most releases. When it comes to the product of translated anime itself getting into the consumers hands, piracy and official releases are neck-and-neck.
Crunchyroll and Funimation are both very slow when it comes to taking advances to fight piracy. While studios might take down illegal sites, two more often swiftly take its place, like an illegal hydra. Basic features like a buffer bar used to be hidden behind paid betas, and there are still many reports of low quality on these sites. Instead of innovating and providing services only an official platform can have, like partnering with a social media and cataloguing site like MyAnimeList or Anilist, they tend to rest on their laurels. Why should a customer pay for no ads and offline viewing when they’d essentially have the same options for free on an illegal streaming site? That’s what I’m hoping Sony will fix with this acquisition.
This merger is already a great start. A big reason why people don’t like subscribing to these services is due to exclusivity deals with those platforms, as well as bigger companies like Hulu and most notoriously, Netflix. Lots of fans prefer to use illegal sites where exclusivity deals don’t affect the content library, so they can save money. Sony purchasing Crunchyroll will hopefully combine their libraries, making it easier for fans to access multiple shows on one site.
Many people might see this and say “Alright, so what if this new service fixes these problems and adds features. Pirates will always be pirates, and they’ll still watch illegally!”, which although very fair, is also very wrong. Taking a look at video games, another community known for rampant piracy. Gabe Newell of Steam famously said “Piracy is almost always a service problem” in a 2011 interview with The Escapist. “If a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24 x 7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country 3 months after the US release, and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate’s service is more valuable.” This quote has ended up proving true, with Steam famously defying all expectations due to their massive success in the notoriously pirate filled Russian gaming market.
Most consumers actually want to support developers and studios so they can get better products from them down the line. Fans love the games (or shows, in this case) and want to see them succeed and receive more support. However, when they don’t, it’s usually because piracy is easier for the audience than obtaining a legal copy. The same thing applies to anime. As of right now, it’s easier to find fully translated shows for free than paying per month for the same experience. If Sony figures out how to make their streaming service more appealing through features, partnerships, and other exclusive things only possible through a legal relationship with studios, it’s been shown time and time again that paying customers will come back.