The days of Chinese manga and anime fans enjoying free online content have largely come to an end as publishers explore ways to monetize their Chinese fan base.

Japanese manga giant Shueisha has asked its Chinese partners – Tencent, Bilibili and iQiyi – to put six blockbuster franchises, including One Piece and Yu-Gi-Oh!, behind paywalls starting next month, according to social media posts by the three Chinese companies.

According to a 2018 report by consultancy firm iResearch, revenue generated from paying anime users grew from 20 million yuan (US$2.8 million) in 2012 to an estimated 7 billion yuan in 2019, closing the gap with online ad revenue which amounted to 11 billion yuan last year.

Monkey D. Luffy, also known as Straw Hat, is the main character in One Piece. (Picture: Handout)

Manga followed a similar trajectory, with paid users accounting for just under one third of total online manga revenue in 2018, according to iResearch, which has not published updated figures.

iResearch’s latest figures show that the number of online anime and manga consumers in China was 219 million last year.

While converting free users to paid users has been an ongoing trend, Shueisha’s decision to put its most popular and valuable ongoing franchise One Piece behind paywall signals the end of an era.

“Going free was just a user acquisition gambit in the beginning. Premium content will be the order of the day in the long term. This is a sign of digital content entering its harvest season,” said Ding Daoshi, director of research at Beijing-based internet consultancy Sootoo.

Digital content in all forms has been moving behind paywalls, fueled by a rising middle class with more money to spend as well as the country’s increased focus on protecting intellectual property rights.

“Respecting paid content as intellectual property is the prevailing trend of the industry,” said TF Securities analyst Wen Hao. “We have already seen a successful transformation from free to paid when it comes to TV shows and movies. Anime and manga are now following suit.”

From its first issue in 1997, the One Piece series is on track to reach 1,000 chapters in 2020 and currently has 470 million copies in print worldwide, according to Shueisha. The fantasy story follows a young boy and his friends travelling the world to hunt for treasure left by great pirates of the past.

In China, the readers of One Piece and Shueisha’s other smash-hits such as Dragon Ball and Naruto are mostly online. The company has been working with Chinese internet giants since the early 2010s to distribute its manga content on the internet.

To compete with the illegal and fan-translated copies – which appear online before the official versions do - Tencent and Bilibili opted to give free access in the beginning but in recent years they have been adding paywalls to more Shueisha titles.

Tencent said that before Shueisha’s latest decision, 44 of the 50 titles it has licensed from the Japanese company had some level of paywall, with a certain number of chapters available for free before a subscription is required.

Similar treatment is being given to Japanese anime, with Baidu’s Netflix-like platform iQiyi putting all of One Piece’s anime behind a paywall at the start of April.

Shueisha, Bilibili and iQiyi did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

As publishers start to request payment for their content, concerns over underground distributors and fan translators are being eased by more aggressive action by the Chinese government in going after copyright violators.

Last Friday, state media reported that a well-known fan translator of One Piece manga was sentenced to three years in jail in Shanghai for copyright infringement and illegal distribution. That prompted the last remaining group of fan translators to announce on Baidu Tieba, a Reddit-like forum in China, that they will stop translating One Piece manga for the fan community.

“This is a welcome development. In the past, China has been too accustomed to unlicensed, illegal content,” said Ding. “The government is clamping down on copyright offenders.”

Liao Xuhua, an analyst at data consultancy firm Analysys, said manga publishers will have no problem finding paying customers if copyright rules can be enforced.

“One Piece had a lot of fan-translated versions circulating the web,” he said. “In contrast, Sony’s new anime and a lot of home-grown manga on Bilibili have been charging users from day one. They basically don’t have any non-paying fans.”