The siren song of illegally copied Japanese anime DVDs is a hard call to resist, even among the most honorable devotees. Staying on top of the animation niche known for saucer-eyed hot chicks and cyberpunk samurai is an expensive hobby, with movies averaging $30 to $50 and specialty items going for upwards of $200.
John Walker, president of the fan club Denver Anime International, often watches with dismay as fellow members of the community -- who refer to themselves as "otaku" -- succumb to bootlegs, which are priced fantastically low and are released long before official versions hit U.S. shelves. "It bothers me as a fan," Walker explains. "I just can't understand how some people don't want to support the industry."
Joseph Henderson is the man Walker considers to be the local anime industry's number-one nemesis. Along with his middle-aged father, Henderson owns Animeniacs, a popular store located in a strip mall off Havana and Hampden in southest Denver. They sell manga (the graphic-novel counterpart to anime), toy figures, T-shirts and Japanese candies that are mostly authentic, but nearly the entire stock of DVDs is what is known in anime circles as "HK" (short for Hong Kong), meaning the product is a bootleg created by sellers in China or Southeast Asia. One such large-scale duplicating facility that supplied much of the U.S.'s illegal anime videos was raided in June 2005 by Hong Kong police, who seized a cache of 230,000 DVDs scheduled to be shipped to America via aerial cargo transport.
Henderson fully admits that his stock of HK anime is made up of unlicensed copies, but he doesn't believe what he's doing is illegal, since the true copyright dispute is between Japan and the home country of the bootleg producer.
If, for example, he were selling a bootleg of a Hollywood film, then, yes, he concedes, it would clearly be a punishable offense. But for right now, Henderson claims he's operating in an international-copyright "gray area" and refuses to even utter the word "bootleg."
Special agent Kevin Fiore of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Colorado office specializes in intellectual property theft. He agrees that there would be some difficulty prosecuting retailers of pirated anime, since tracing the product back to its overseas source would necessitate "another layer of investigation." But that doesn't mean the American dealer of such materials couldn't get busted. Depending on the scope of the operation, Fiore says, punishments could result in anything from fines to felony charges of wire or mail fraud.
But to the uninitiated, identifying fakes can be difficult.
The rows of shelves lined with various anime films and television shows at Animeniacs look just like those at any Best Buy or Blockbuster. The first clue that something is amiss is that one of the store's top sellers, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, retails for only $16 -- astounding, considering that the computer-generated film isn't even scheduled to be released in the States until late March, at a cost of $27. A three-disc boxed set of the Japanese TV show Naruto sells for $24, even though it has never been released, according to a spokesperson for its American license-holder, VIZ Media. Upon closer inspection, buyers will notice that the covers are slightly blurry and the small print is hard to read, as if it had been photocopied from an original. The art on the discs is glued on, not screen-printed, and the subtitles are in both Chinese and English, a feature that most legitimate anime companies do not offer. The quality of the knockoffs may be a little substandard and the translations often laughably crappy -- in one subtitle, a teenage ninja was told that he must "ass" all thirteen tests of skill -- but many anime fans simply don't care. After all, it's hard to argue with the price.
"If there was not a market for something, there would not be a business for it," Henderson says. "I import stuff because people buy it." He sees his bootlegging as a way to force the American companies that license and distribute anime to lower their prices, which are often too expensive for young fans.
It's a justification that Roger Morse knows too well.
"Good afternoon -- Gimme Anime," the 35-year-old store owner says into the receiver. He listens patiently, then replies, "No, Advent Children will not be out until March. Sorry." He hangs up, then mutters angrily, "Of course, down the street they've been selling bootlegs of it for three months."
Morse opened Gimme Anime in 2002 with his wife (they met through local anime clubs). Business was growing steadily and nearing profitability, but when Henderson opened Animeniacs down the road in mid-2003, sales plateaued and soon began to plummet.
"I'm at a loss. My wife and I have poured a lot of time and money and blood and sweat into this place," Morse laments. "But there's no way I can compete with the bootleggers."
The genre, however, has a long history of low-grade bootlegging. Morse fell in love with anime as a college student in 1990, long before popular shows like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! or the more adult-themed Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop began earning prominent play on Cartoon Network and pushed the genre further into the mainstream. Back then, American fans had to rely on an informal trading network whereby one friend would copy an anime tape and give it to another. This system, Morse remembers, was built around the "code of honor," which went something like Thou shalt not profit off of reproducing anime. To do so was anime heresy and a quick way to earn enemies.
"If it's one on one, I don't see it as doing that much damage," he says. "But printing out 10,000 copies of something and selling it for a profit makes a much larger impact on the artists and the industry than just some kid making a copy for one of his friends."
That's why Morse has never dealt in bootlegs and is taking shots at Henderson's operation. Early on, he put an educational display of a bootleg DVD in his store with labels instructing customers on how to recognize a fake. But that backfired after too many fans asked if they could buy the movie. Then he began reporting Animeniacs to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice, U.S. Customs and even the Denver Police Department, but except for a few letters from anime distributors like FUNimation demanding a cease-and-desist and a recent visit to the store by the FBI -- something Henderson describes as a "note-taking session" -- Animeniacs continues unscathed. And despite his frustration, Morse has yet to confront Henderson outright. "I'm just not a confrontational person," he sighs. "It took some time for me to even do something like this. It's just that he knows exactly what he's doing, and he doesn't care. Why? Because people are buying it, and he feels he's providing some sort of service."
"There's no legal pressure," Henderson asserts. "There has not been one bit of any legal pressure, and I think that annoys the other guy."
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To try to combat bootlegging, Denver Anime's Walker conscripted a small force of fans to inspect all the products brought in by vendors at last year's Nan Desu Kan anime convention, which drew some 5,000 otaku to the Denver Tech Center. "If we determined something was bootlegged, we didn't allow people to bring it into the convention," he says. If sellers were dealing in verboten vids after the assembly began, his volunteers were instructed to make vendors tear down their posters, box up their products and leave. None were, though the walk of shame has been rumored to have occurred at other anime conventions.
Walker has blacklisted Henderson from this fall's convention, and he intends to check every vendor who comes in. If anyone is caught trying to sell unlicensed materials, they will find themselves banned not only from Nan Desu Kan, but also from taking part in the other spheres of geekdom. This includes the sci-fi convention StarFest, the two gaming caucuses GenghisCon and Mile High Con, and the Opus Fantasy Arts Festival, which covers everything from fairies to zombies to sorcery. It would be a major blow to an anime dealer's wallet, as conventions are a big source of income.
But Henderson doesn't mind. "It really comes down to, you can choose what you want to do," he says. "If people really want to buy something, they will."