Locke and Manga: the Scanlation Drama

California Poppy #8John Locke’s thoughts on property echo throughout our discourse on intellectual property. Here is one:

Sec. 27. Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body had any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other Men. For this Labour being the unquestionable Property of the Labourer, no Man but he can have a right to what that is once joyned to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.

Simply, the more work a person puts into something she took from nature/the commons/the public domain the more she owns it. This argument is usually used when justifying extensions of copyright, because it brings together something that both physical and intellectual creators do (work) and says that work (on something as mercurial as a tune or a poem or as staid as a piano or a pen) assures ownership and perpetual rights.

OneManga scanlation on Sony Reader

But this property argument also works in funny ways when it comes to derivative works. Like a tune or a poem, they also involve work to make something different than it was. For example, scanlation of manga is:
  1. Scanning Japanese manga,
  2. Putting those images online, and
  3. Letting a distributed community of translators translate them into English.

This free service filled the gap between when popular manga came out in Japan and when the official translations came out in the English-speaking world, often months later.

Groups like OneManga did this with the consent of the publishers–and reacted quickly to publisher’s complaints by taking down the offending material*. There is clearly room for abuse–Japanese audiences can read the scans online with or without English translations, and so avoid paying for physical copies. This post from Broccoman goes into lucid detail about different scanlation sites.

Back to the Lockean perspective, scanlation includes an incredible amount of work, and so might engender a certain amount of distributed ownership amount scanlators. Scanlators claim no ownership, but since they provide free publicity and market research perhaps they should not be treated like pure pirates.
*OneManga is now no longer offering translated scans because a wide range of publishers complained.
Inspiration Quote:
“You can’t possibly hear the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh and go slow.”–Oscar Levant, explaining his way out of a speeding ticket


  1. They’re COMIC BOOKS for heaven’s sake! Anyway, I think the publishers have a right to control the distribution of their product.

    Surprised to see no mention of George Soros’ $100 million gift to Human Rights Watch. (Maybe a little more important than whether someone has to wait an extra month to read an authorized translation of their favorite comic book.)

  2. I’d be delighted read a blog that you wrote on the subjects you have suggested in your many comments, but they are not my focus here right now. On the whole, I only cover breaking news that immediately relates to my field of study, which these news items do not. Thanks for posting!

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