While preparing for my talk in Melbourne, I was IM'ing with my sister who I steal a lot of my material from these days. We were talking about Naruto, which I blogged about earlier in the context of the Naruto Matrix Reloaded AMV. On the site, the author says, "To clarify, it's as much of a Naruto advertisement as it is a Matrix parody" (emphasis added) We were talking about the amazing fan community around Naruto.
If you go to the site that lists the BitTorrent files of Naruto, you will see that fans have subtitled the episodes into a variety of languages like Hebrew, Portuguese, French... When new episodes of Naruto come out, the fans get together on IRC and other fora and collaborate and create subtitled versions and put them online. If you search for Naruto on Amazon.com, you find a page where the fans are voting for the DVD release and the notice says that they will notify the publisher of the voting. (It would be interesting to find out if the publisher or the fans initiated this.) It also appears that when a local DVD is released, the fans take down their subtitled episodes for that region. By allowing the fans to create demand, the publishers are using these file sharing networks and illegal derivative works as an extremely efficient form of marketing. Thanks to the network of Internet anime fans, Naruto is still niche, but popular globally.
This kind of publisher approved "piracy" is not a new thing. Dojinshi, are comics created by fans of Japanese comics. They are illegal derivative works. They make their own stories using famous comics as the base. They have huge conventions and it's an amazing community. The publishers of most of these comics encouraged this dojinshi culture because they realized that this increases the demand for the originals. These derivative works and sharing creates "fans" not "lost customers".
Some will argue that this is niche stuff, but I talked to a marketing guy at TV Tokyo and he said that they are now focused on niche. In the past they tried to appeal to a wide audience including young children and they tried to get a small amounts of money from a lot of people. (Like Pokemon stuffed animals.) Now, with box sets and special edition DVDs, they are finding that niche oriented adults and otaku will spend thousands of dollars on one show. They are able to collect more money from fewer people. I think this is one of the key marketing lessons that we're getting to. Before you tried to get a tiny bit of money from everyone who listened to a song or watched a show. Maybe if we focus on getting more money from fewer people, we can design business models around relationships and physical things rather than the content itself. Digital content might be better viewed as a marketing tool or metadata of the actual property or asset that is being promoted.
My sister's been getting most of this information about fandom from her research assistant Rachel Cody.