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Apple Should Get Out of the Manga Piracy Business

Sorry for another anime/manga-related post, but a thread on Twitter reminded me of some Apple misdeeds that need rectifying. It started with a pair of tweets, first from Zac Bertschy of Anime News Network:

I’m sure this has been asked a million times, but why are there so many goddamn bootleg manga apps on the iOS store?

And then a follow-up from social-media expert and publisher Erica Friedman of Yuricon:

@ANNZac I’ve tried to write Apple/Google about the links to bootleg sites. Neither has a reasonable way for reasonable people to complain

So let me back up a second… what we’re talking about are dedicated apps that read “scanlations”, which are comics (usually Japanese manga) that have been scanned, translated by fans into English, and posted for free to various websites or made available through channels like BitTorrent.

Zac righly calls this “bootlegging” because there is no question that copyright violation is involved. Entire works are being digitally redistributed with zero compensation to the original authors or publishers. What can make this a gray area is a question of whether or not any actual harm is done: if the work is unavailable in English, nor likely to ever be, then how can a scanlation eliminate a sale that could never be made? This is a fairly bogus defense because (as we’ll see), the untranslated works are just a minor part of the story. Moreover, we could apply the established tests of “Fair Use” under US copyright law, such as:

  • Is the new work “transformative”? In other words, are we using the original to create a fundamentally different thing?
  • How much of the original is being used?
  • Does the copying impede future sale of the original work? Does it harm the creator?
  • etc.

Guidelines like this permit use like, say, presenting few pages of a comic in the context of a critical review or an academic paper: fundamentally new work, small amount of copying, doesn’t replace the original (and might actually drive new interest and sales). And obviously, a scanlation fails every one of these tests: it’s a full-on copy that changes only the language, and fully replaces a translation the original publisher might provide. It’s also been pointed out that scanlations are harming the development of a legal digital manga industry in the US. Scanlations would have zero chance of surviving a legal challenge.

So why the hell is Apple in the business of distributing them on iOS?

Search for manga on the App Store and you’ll get dozens of hits. Most of them are apps for downloading and reading scanlations on your iPad or iPhone. For the purpose of this blog, I tried the free versions of:

Note: these are not affiliate links. I wouldn’t want a cut of their sales, since I consider them illegal and illicit.

Most of these apps get their contents from three scanlation websites: MangaFox, Mangareader.net, and MangaEden. Some of these sites play at supporting the source of their titles by slapping in pseudo-legal disclaimers and vague admonishments to somehow support artists as seen on this page of The Rose of Versailles:

Manga Storm page from Rose of Versailles, with disclaimer caption

This image is hosted at mangafox.com. We take no credit for the creation or editing of this image. All rights belong tot he original publisher and mangaka. While we hosted this for free at mangafox.com, please don’t forget to support the mangaka in any way that you can once his/her work becomes available for retail sale in your region!

Some of these sites also adhere to an ethic that they don’t host scanlations of titles that have been licensed in the US. In this screenshot, Manga BDR (which awkwardly makes you browse MangaFox rather than scraping its index) shows an notice that Fullmetal Alchemist is unavailable from MangaFox because it has been licensed in the US:

Manga BDR showing MangaFox notice that Fullmetal Alchemist is unavailable

Does this mean there’s honor among thieves? Hardly. The sites are still violating the original Japanese copyright of the titles they do offer. And they’re not living up to the implicit promise to make obscure titles available to a wider audience — the Rose of Versailles manga cited above has not been completely translated, despite being more than 30 years old. And wherever Manga Rock gets its data from, it has no compunction about offering up titles that have US publishers. Here’s Manga Rock 2 offering Fullmetal Alchemist in its entirety:

Fullmetal Alchemist manga on Manga Rock 2

Not only is this stuff illicit bootlegs, these apps are popular because they allow access to pirated manga. Every single one of these apps advertises itself on the App Store with screenshots of browsing popular titles that have US publishers: Manga Storm shows Fairy Tail, Manga Rock shows Fairy Tail, Air Gear, and Negima!, and Komik Connect shows Bleach and Naruto. And the users use these apps precisely because of their illegal nature: the one-star reviews on Manga Storm don’t complain about it ripping off artists, but because it lacks US-licensed titles (due to its dependence on MangaFox and friends), and because it’s a paid app.

And speaking of the paid versions…

Apple gets a 30% cut of every sale of the full versions of these apps. That makes Apple a direct beneficiary of copyright piracy.

Everyone who stood up to say Apple does more to support creators than Google and its cavalier attitude towards IP rights, you can sit down now. So long as these apps are available on the App Store, Apple is complicit in piracy.

It’s fair game to criticize Apple for these, when the company has such a stringent review process. When it’s so careful to consider what it will and won’t sell, approval of an app has to be considered an explicit endorsement, particularly considering Apple gets a cut of the sales.

And that’s what makes it all the more galling:

The last of these may be the most galling. Erica Friedman again:

I went on a rant about why is it okay with the those of you who like shiny things that Apple just told DMP to take their BL off the iPad app? WHY?!? If the TV hardware manufacturers told you what TV stations you could receive, you’d be enraged. When your work blocks sites, you find ways around it. So why the hell is it okay will all you Apple fans that Apple censors content? I cannot understand why you are not screaming at all, much less loudly? APPLE CENSORS CONTENT. Especially LGBTQ content. Why are you still giving money to a company like that? People boycott BP and Chik-Fil-A and Target…but are absolute sheep about Apple’s censorship of content. ARGGGGGHHHH.

It’s as if Apple is saying “we won’t let anyone sell you gay manga for your iPad, but we will sell you tools to help you steal the stuff.”

This has to stop.

If nothing else, these apps are in obvious violation of section 22.4 of the iOS App Store Review Guidelines:

22.4 Apps that enable illegal file sharing will be rejected

Apple apparently won’t listen to third-party criticism (people have been calling attention to these bootlegging apps since at least 2010: 1, 2, 3), but there are channels that aggrieved parties can use. Viz and Yen Press have legitimate iOS apps for their manga titles. Since Manga Rock 2 makes bootlegs of those titles available (I saw Viz’s Fullmetal Alchemist and Yen’s High School of the Dead), these companies could use Apple’s dispute policies to at least have Manga Rock 2 taken down.

Beyond this, it’s hard to see what will work. Via Twitter, Erica noted yesterday that most US manga publishers are too small and operating on margins too thin to follow up with DMCA takedowns, and Apple may be technically in the clear on DMCA because they’re not themselves hosting the offending content.

However, since Apple’s making money off the sale of the apps used to pirate this content — in clear and obvious violation of their own policy — another option is that the Japanese publishers might want to sue Apple directly. They would presumably have more legal resources to stick with a lawsuit, and with Apple deaf to criticism, maybe it would take a few subpoenas to call their attention to the fact that making money off piracy is an awfully dirty business for one of the world’s largest and most prestigious companies to be involved in.

For the sake of Apple and the creative community, these apps need to disappear forever.

The Whiny Little Bitch Contingent meets iBooks Author

Let me introduce you to the “Whiny Little Bitch Contingent”. This was a term I coined in the late 2000’s to cover the Java developers who cried and moaned about the slow decline in Apple’s support for Java: the deprecation of the Cocoa-Java bridge, the long wait for Java 6 on Mac OS X, its absence from iOS, etc. Every time there was news on this front, they could be reliably counted on to dredge up Steve Jobs’ pledge at the JavaOne 2000 keynote to make the Mac the best Java programming environment… and to bring this up in seeming ignorance of the passage of many years, the changes in the tech world, the abject failure of Desktop Java, other companies’ broken promises (Sony’s pledge of Java on the PlayStation 2, the Java-based Phantom gaming console), etc.

The obvious trait of the Whiny Little Bitch Contingent is their sense of entitlement: companies like Apple owe us stuff. The more subtle trait is their ignorance of the basic principle that people, organizations, and companies largely operate in their own self-interest. Apple got interested in Java when it seemed like a promising way to write Mac apps (or, a promising way to get developers to write Mac apps). When that failed, they had understandably little interest in providing developers a means of writing apps for other platforms. I’m sure I’m not the only person to write a Java webapp on the Mac that I knew my employer would block Mac clients from actually using. By 2008, when Apple entered the mobile market with the iPhone, there was nothing about supporting Java that would appeal to Apple’s self-interest, outside of a small number of hardware sales to Java developers.

That’s what defines the WLBC to me: sense of entitlement, and an igorance of other parties’ self-interest (which leads to an expectation of charity and thus the sense of entitlement).

So, yesterday, Apple holds an event to roll out their whole big deal with Textbooks on the iPad. They look pretty, they’ve got an economic model that may make some sense for publishers (i.e., it may be in the publishers’ self-interest), etc. Also, there’s a tool for creating textbooks in Apple’s format.

And this is where the Whiny Little Bitch Contingent goes ape-shit. Because there’s a clause in the iBooks Author EULA that says if you’re going to charge for your books, you can only publish to Apple’s iBookstore.

So, let’s back up a second. The only point of this software is to feed Apple’s content chain. The only reason it is being offered, free, is to lure authors and publishers to use Apple’s stuff… which in turn sells more iPads and gives Apple a 30% cut. If you are not going to put stuff on Apple’s store, why do you even care about this? Hell, I don’t develop for Microsoft’s platforms, so if they see the need to turn Visual Studio into an adventure game… hey that’s their problem.

If you’re not authoring for Apple’s iBookstore, why do you even care what iBooks Author does, or what’s in its EULA?

In decrying the “cold cynicism” of Apple’s iBook EULA, Marshall Kirkpatrick writes:

It’s hard to wrap my brain around the cold cynicism of Apple’s releasing a new tool to democratize the publishing of eBooks today, only to include in the tool’s terms and conditions a prohibition against selling those books anywhere but through Apple’s own bookstore

“Democratize the publishing of eBooks”? Where the hell did he get that? Maybe he watched the video and fell for the grandiosity and puffery… I never actually watch these Apple dog-and-pony shows anymore, as following the Twitter discussion seems to give me the info I need. But thinking that Apple is in the business of democratizing anything is nuts: they’re in the business of selling stuff, and the only reason they’d give out a free tool is to get you to help them sell more of that stuff.

I didn’t download iBooks Author, even though you’d expect an Apple-skewing author like me to be one of the first onboard. Frankly, I’m pretty tired of writing, as the last two books have been difficult experiences, and the thought of starting another book, even with a 70% royalty instead of 5%, is not that appealing. A year ago I thought about self-publishing a book on AV Foundation, but right now I lack the will (also, I’ve failed to fall in love with AV Foundation, and blanch at its presumptions, limitations, and lack of extensibility… I much prefer the wild and wooly QuickTime or Core Audio).

So, if we’re going to talk about iBooks Author, let me know how it holds up for long documents: if it’s pretty on page 1, is it still usable when you’re 200 pages in? Does it offer useful tools for managing huge numbers of assets? Does it provide its own revision system and change tracking, or does it at least play nicely with Subversion and Git? Can it be used in a collaborative environment? These are interesting questions, at least to people who plan to use the tool to publish books on the iBookstore.

But if Apple’s not giving you a pretty, free tool you can use to write .mobi files that Amazon can sell Kindles with? Sorry, Whiny Little Bitch Contingent, I’ve got zero sympathy for you there. Call it a third party opportunity. Or just put on your big boy underwear and do it yourself.

Take it, Geddy:

You don’t get something for nothing
You can’t have freedom for free
You won’t get wise
With the sleep still in your eyes
No matter what your dreams might be