How legal is anime fansubbing?

I know many people who watch animes not available in the US by downloading fan-subtitled episodes off the internet. I’ve noticed that Japan’s copyright laws seem to be a bit different than the US’ - those comics that people sell, for one. (Dojinshi? I’m not sure how to spell the term.) So, is it legal for people to download these shows? How about manga scanslations, how legit are they?

I can’t see how it’s legal. If it’s copyrighted in Japan, then, by the Berne Convention, it’s copyrighted in the US. It’s merely a matter of whether the copyright holders decide to sue.

Both practices are very much illegal. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a fansubber deny that.

Copying the video and audio of a movie obviously violates the owner’s copyright. Still shots from a movie are covered by copyright. I believe verbatim transcriptions of the audio are also covered by copyright.

What about translations of the audio? Copyright generally only prohibits duplication of a work. Is a translation a copy or a new work inspired by the previous work? Would trademarks laws prevent a translation even if copyright law did not?

There are similar issues for paraphrasing (in the same language) and copy-cat artwork based on a movie. Copyright or trademark infringement, both or neither?

Translation, release in foreign markets, re-editing, adaptation and creation of derivative work are all modalities covered under the various intellectual-property laws that often get lumped together under “copyright”.

Strictly speaking, fansubbing’s illegal as it nearly never involves actually obtaining the rights-holders’ permission to do or approval to release. Just so happens this often was deemed not worth enforcing aggressively. The producers of much Anime historically tended to treat limited-scale fansubbing with a philosophical attitude that it wasn’t worth it going after a handful of fanboy geeks doing this for kicks – until and unless (a)there were at least serious negotiations to license the rights for US distribution to a paying customer, or, (b)the fanboys started profiting from it; and that as long as fansub meant Nth-generation tapes or low res AVIs circulating among a tiny hard core for club showings or P2P, at least it would whet appetite for a real translation to be published. BUT, the laid-back attitude is not something to bet the farm on, just because the legal counsels of some Japanese media companies are not in permanent pit-bull mode a-la-Disney it doesn’t mean they can’t lay the smackdown on you if they decide to (specially if the piece is being made from the start with export potential as a consideration).

It could be both. For instance, Fantasia is a copyrighted work. Within it, the character “Mickey Mouse” is a trademark. If some of the musical pieces were specifically written/performed/recorded for that film, then Disney has copyrights on that score/performance/recording.
If the original work is under copyright, or the elements involved in it are individually trademarked, your choices to make anything from it without being authorized by the rights-holder these days are generally limited to parody, or fair-use quoting, which must be very limited, faithful, clearly attributed, and for a legit purpose. And even in the case of parody, as the MAD, Falwell/Hustler and The Wind Done Gone cases show, you may still have to defend yourself formally, it’s not a “magic safeword” you can just wave around.

I’ve only seen a few fan-subbed animes, but each of them included a message stating that the anime in question had never officially been made available in the US, followed by an encouragement to purchase the legitimate product should it ever become officially available.

A friend who is heavily into anime told me that the Japanese publishers know this is going on, and that they ‘look the other way’. According to this friend, the condition of the Japanese economy was such that the biggest growth was coming from the export of Japanese culture and entertainment. They turn a “blind eye” to fansubbing, and even piracy, knowing that those practices will serve to make more non-Japanese aware of the stuff, thereby creating a bigger demand for the legitimate products.

While I’m not an anime fanboy, I am a fan of a Japanese pop singer named Aiko. I discovered her quite accidentally when I was searching the Internet for a Japanese model named Aiko Sato. Stumbling across the singer, I downloaded some MP3s of her music. I was so impressed that I’m now the legitimate owner of four of her CDs. So I think the premise is valid - allow it to be made freely available, and the sales will follow.

Huh, that’s all very interesting. Thanks for the answers, everyone!