Last week, I made the pretty bold claim that Gonzo studio was about to change everything with their new release model for the Tower of Druaga and BLASSREITER. On Friday and Saturday, Gonzo followed through on their promise by releasing the shows’ premiere episodes online immediately following their broadcast on Japanese TV. English-speaking fans all over the world could watch the subtitled video for free on YouTube, or they could pay to download a video copy that was not restricted by copy-protection on Crunchyroll or BOST TV.
So how did Gonzo do on their first week of this experiment?
Better than I expected.
With in the first hour the shows’ streaming premiere, the Otakusphere was buzzing was impressions and reviews of the first episode. They were easily the most talked about shows for the day, and the first new shows of the spring season to get the full attention of the community. Druaga, in particular, received a tremendous amount of positive comments on YouTube, and also attracted the attention of other popular blogs on the internet.
But for me, this experiment became a test to see how DRM-free video works in the world of illegal downloads. The argument for DRM and copy-protection is that it prevents people from pirating the videos they buy. Sure, it means that videos will be restricted to who can watch it and how they watch it, and sure they basically will not work on Mac or Linux computers, but that is a small price to pay for combating illegal distribution. Because of this idea, mostly every paid download service out there puts DRM on their products.
However, both of the new shows from Gonzo were available as a DRM-free download for only $2. Crunchyroll even offered a large sized H264 version that was easily on par with any other pirated anime episode on bittorrent. And since it was DRM-free, these videos could have easily been put on bittorrent the moment someone purchased and downloaded it.
So did they?
Nope. No one took their paid copy of the episode and posted it online.
It is true that the shows were eventually pirated, everything is eventually pirated online. But in the case of these two episodes, it was not the actual DRM-free video that was illegally redistributed. The pirates who did so went through the whole process of taking a digital recording of the TV broadcast, overlaying their own fansubs, and then putting it back onto the internet. The only difference this time is that the pirates didn’t even bother making their own translations! They just re-wrote the subtitles form the free YouTube stream.
But even though no amateurs had to translated it, these illegal fansubs still took two whole days to get done and out on the internet. That’s still two days after everyone had already either legally watched it on YouTube or legally downloaded it DRM-free. In fact, Druaga had already been viewed by at least 30,000 viewers and had received over 100 comments on YouTube by the time the fansub went up. Some bittorrent tracking sites like AnimeSuki.com didn’t even bother listing the pirated version.
Let’s compare this to Kanokon, another new series that also premiered on Saturday but was not freely available to the English-speaking audience. Because of the pressure of fansub groups to be the first to hit the internet with a new series, pirates pounced at the opportunity to fansub the series. The result was that Kanokon was subbed and released on bittorrent within hours of its broadcast, beating out both of the Gonzo titles to the illegal market.
This proves that selling videos without any DRM will not promote piracy. If anything, it slowed it down. After all, think about it. If someone paid their own money to download an episode, they own it. And if they own it, why are they going to let the whole world freeload off of them? They’re going to keep the video for themselves!
The pirates got thrown for a loop with this one. No actual fansub group wanted to sub it, because what would be the point? Gonzo already did it and a lot of people had already seen it. So real fansub groups focused on those other series and passed on the Gonzo shows. After days of waiting, some other jackasses thought, “hey, this is our chance to make a fansub without knowing any Japanese!” However, the subtitles available for free on YouTube were all “hard-coded” into the videos, so they could not simply copy-and-paste it into the pirated version. And so they literally copied the subtitles from the streaming video word-for-word by hand and passed it off like any other fansub.
That’s just pathetic.
Illegal fansub (bottom) copies subtitles from legal download (top) word-for-word
By allowing users to view their shows in either a free or non-DRM’ed video, Gonzo had stopped that immediate need for normal fansubbers to pirate their shows, and thus were able to control the way their content was being viewed by a majority of the viewers. This allowed the company to actually do some monitoring and statistics, something they could never do with fansubs. They can now see how many views each episode receive, how many viewers return to watch more of the series, and what viewers are saying about the show through comments and other feedback.
This kind of statistical information is probably the most valuable result from this experiment. By just looking at the numbers from YouTube, Gonzo can immediately see that Druaga received a much better reaction from the foreign audience than Blassreiter did. This even went against my own prediction, because I would have thought that an action show with violence and nudity would kill a dorky comedy in the US ratings. But those numbers don’t lie, Druaga outperformed Blassreiter 5-to-1.
Gonzo can now approach a US licensor with this data and show the kind of potential these shows can have on foreign DVDs based on this test audience. But more than that, they can read through all the comments and feedback to figure out which particular bits from the one show had the global audience laughing and what particular aspects of the other show made that audience cringe. With this knowledge, they can produce the next series to appeal to both Japanese and foreign otaku, thus giving it more potential to become a hit globally.
As far as what I thought of these series.. well… neither one was that big of a hit for me. I paid for the first episode of both series, and that was well worth the money to sample what they had to offer. But I can’t really see myself enjoying the shows enough to want to continue watching and financially support them. I’m a little on the fence with Druaga, though. I’ll check out the next episode or two on YouTube, and if they convince me that it really a good series, I’ll pay the $20 for the entire season’s worth of DRM-free videos. Otherwise, I’ll move on to other things.
But that’s the kind of freedom that you, the consumer, get with this new distribution strategy. You get to sample and decide exactly which shows you enjoy and wish to support with your own cash and which shows you can do without. Case in point, after watching the first episodes of the new shows Kanokon and To Love-ru this week, I immediately became a fan and wanted more from them. Had the studios behind these two shows followed Gonzo’s strategy, I would have paid them right then and there for the entire season worth of episodes. When you become a big fan of a show, you want to own a piece of it.
Sadly, that is not an option yet for those shows and most anime out there. But Gonzo’s experiment last week gives me hope that it will happen soon. In my opinion, their method of providing free streaming content and dropping the DRM paid downloads benefitted both the anime fans and the company. The fans got the choice of sampling the shows and choosing which ones they wished to pay to own and which ones not to. Gonzo, in return, was able to eliminate the immediate need for illegal fansubs and got a lot of fans watching the shows in a controlled and measurable manner. By doing so, they were able to research first-hand how well the shows did with the English-speaking audience, which will prove to be very valuable for the future for the studio.
I said that Gonzo is about to change everything, and so for, it’s working. Let’s continue to support them this season so that many more studios will adopt this new strategy for next season.
After all, wouldn’t you want every anime to be as free and open as this?