A look at copyright in Japan


Loveable rogue Lupin the Third – a case study in Japanese attitudes.

by Bob Johnson

The Japanese approach to copyright and trademarks used to seem a lot more relaxed, especially when it came to characters. In the 1980s it seemed like every other character was lifted straight out of a Hollywood film! In those days, to use some famous character in an anime, was seen as a parody in itself, or failing that, as no big deal. Probably the biggest example of this relaxed era is Lupin III, whose manga spawned an eternal fountain of new TV shows and feature films – plus a lawsuit from the Maurice Leblanc estate. By the time the family of the creator of the original Arsène Lupin caught on to the craze, their lawuit was essentially ruled to be too late.


Despite this, it’s a surprise to hear that the concept of “fair use” doesn’t really exist in Japan. At least, not if you’re the unfortunate soul whose case ends up in court. If you’re lucky enough, maybe the copyright gods will only come down on you with a nastygram. But if the police decide that smashing a few jewel cases is the kind of coverage they want on the nightly news, all bets are off! In recent years, Japan has run raids for some really weak-tea stuff. Something as mundane as a video game bar needs to perform business reorganization as a “used game shop” just to avoid the ire of Nintendo!

While corporate complaints are met with swift [in]justice, individual artists aren’t always given the same weight. Animators regularly challenge each other over “torepaku” – when a drawing is traced or cribbed off someone else’s work. Allegations may hang over the accused on Google, but they aren’t as likely to come before a judge. It’s also inherently subjective, the degree of infringement can be overstated, or it may simply be misunderstood homage or parody.

Japanese attitudes on copyright extend outside the home islands through the force of its global media enterprises, contracts with international distributors, and multilateral treaties. Corporate behemoths like Sony exert influence on the global stage, lobbying governments directly. As for the little guys, you can track stats on anime agreements across the planet at the Association of Japan Animations. By sheer number of signed deals – a direct, if imperfect proxy, for the size of a country’s anime purchases – the US has slipped from #1 to the #4 export market. The new #1? China! That’s a far cry from recent memory, when entertainment companies wouldn’t touch the PRC with a three meter pole.

Japan is also a member of various treaties and international organizations concerned with copyrights, some of which, like the Rome Convention, don’t include the United States. American leadership on the issue has waned, especially as Asian nations have soured on patent rules (often negotiated in tandem with copyrights). The sudden absence of America from the TPP seems to have given the Pacific Rim a little breathing room to take a different tack. Japan, on the other hand, doesn’t get to pick and choose whether or not to be in an Asia-Pacific trade deal. So compromise on copyright language is still possible, even if it’s rare that a new deal has tangible benefits to individual consumers.

Maybe look it up:
Japanese approach to Copyright, Trademarks, and Trade Policy
In the social sciences and diplomatic literature

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