February 1, 2005 4:00 AM PST

Anxious times in the cartoon underground

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of obsessive fan who can describe in detail the plot threads of series that last for dozens or hundreds of episodes, and can discuss animators' resumes like baseball fans do batting averages.

The culture has its roots in the early 1980s, when few anime series were available in the United States and small groups would meet in college dormitories to watch much-copied videotapes of shows impossible to see any other way. The Internet, and particularly the powerful BitTorrent file-trading software, has now allowed those little fan groups to expand exponentially, giving them access to thousands of episodes at the click of a mouse.

"There's no gray area...It is technically illegal."
--David Williams, producer
ADV Films

Anime-Faith is a good example of how one of these modern groups works. It has translators, editors, typesetters for the subtitles, encoders who digitize the video, quality checkers and more, with a product flow as efficient as a professional operation.

Most groups like this fervently believe they are supporting the cause of anime by allowing fans to see otherwise unavailable titles, and building awareness of shows that would otherwise be unknown before their U.S. release. Most take their "fansubs" out of circulation when an American company licenses a title for distribution in the United States.

The only problem is that it's not technically legal.

Fan base growing, but sales flat
"There's no gray area," said David Williams, a producer at ADV Films, one of the largest distributors of Japanese animation DVDs and merchandise in the United States. "It is technically illegal. When we announce a title, if there is a site that is distributing fansubs, then we contract them and ask them to remove it."

ADV is one of the most adamant of the U.S. distributors. Other smaller houses privately say they recognize the promotional value of the online distribution, which can help boost sales for top titles. But there's also a potential downside.

One executive who asked not to be named said the last two years have seen a significant shift in sales patterns. Top titles still sell well, but the middle categories that used to sell respectable numbers of copies are "being forgotten," he said.

In part, this may be because distribution of anime has exploded alongside its online fan base. Many more titles are now being licensed and distributed every year. Anime is widely shown on the Cartoon

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