Fansubbing—the unofficial creation of fan-made subtitles for TV shows and movies—is illegal, a Dutch court ruled this week.
The Free Subtitles Foundation, after coming under fire from the Netherlands’ anti-piracy association BREIN, decided to raise some money and take BREIN to court. The Foundation’s lawyer told TorrentFreak that the lawsuit sought to clarify whether the creators of a TV show or movie can reserve the right to create and distribute subtitles.
And indeed, that’s exactly what the court ruled: that subtitles can only be created and distributed with permission from the rights holders. Doing so without permission is copyright infringement, and thus punishable with either jail time or a fine, depending on where you live.
Subtitle downloads are hugely popular on the Internet: there are thousands of websites that offer free subtitle files for TV shows and movies. Sometimes those subtitles are ripped from the original stream or disc, but often—especially if they’re not in one of the handful of primary languages—they are the work of fansubbers.
Fansubbers, of course, maintain that they are doing a Good Thing by allowing millions more people to enjoy films and TV shows that they might not otherwise be able to understand. BREIN, however, asserts that subtitles are mostly used by people who download pirated media, and thus fansubbers are not only violating copyright themselves but also inciting piracy and damaging the market.
Following the court ruling, BREIN’s director Tim Kuik said in a statement: “With this decision in hand it will be easier for BREIN to maintain its work against illegal subtitlers and against sites and services that collect illegal subtitles and add movies and TV shows from an illegal source.”
Much like file sharing websites themselves, actually policing subtitle sites will be difficult. Just look at the world of anime fansubbing, which has been under fire for more than a decade but is still going strong—or, in some cases, has shifted to just straight-up anime streaming websites with baked-in English subtitles. A better solution might be for content creators and distributors to release officially subtitled content simultaneously worldwide, much in the same way that some big American TV shows and movies are now being released in Europe and Asia at the same time, rather than a few months or years later.