An Outline of Copyright Law in Japan

A few days ago someone told me that I shouldn’t call stealing anime and manga ‘theft’, because “Japanese copyright law is different.” Well, it isn’t all THAT different. And here’s the evidence: an English language breakdown of Japanese copyright law.

The Japanese Government established the Copyright Research and Information Center in 1995 to provide up-to-date information on developments in copyright and intellectual property law. If you’re interested in what is and isn’t legally acceptable in Japan, and how that meshes with international law, you  should visit.

Copyright and intellectual property rights are the subject of heated debate. One the one hand, we have the reality that creators’ rights are regularly crushed under the wheels of the seemingly unstoppable behemoth of broadband Internet access: on the other, the legal position that creators should own and control their work.  This is looking more and more like a Victorian fantasy, except for those creators in a position to take expensive enforcement action under legislative frameworks which are increasingly weighted against them.

When it comes to Japanese pop culture, the level of theft is overwhelming. Thirty years ago a few fans traded videotapes of shows that had no chance of commercial sale in English, and argued with publishers and distributors that they should translate more Japanese material. They helped to create the international anime and manga industry. Today, millions of “fans” trade links to sites where they can read and hear material which is commercially available in their own language, without supporting the creators and producers in any way. The only people making money are the site owners.

Many of these people argue that what they are doing benefits the industry because it provides “exposure”. The mechanism by which a third party giving away for free something you can already buy commercially is beneficial to the seller has yet to be adequately explained. Others argue that because Japanese creators generally don’t take action against those who steal their work, such theft is somehow justified and even legitimate.

The morals of others are none of my business, but the naming of things and the meaning of words are very much my business. Individual anime & manga fans will deal with unauthorised free distribution of other people’s property as they see fit. I just wish they’d stop pretending that it’s not a crime.

5 thoughts on “An Outline of Copyright Law in Japan

  1. I wish they did too. It’s too much like what my mom use to do back in the day once she got two VCR’s in the house. 😛

  2. Salil Mehra has a very good summary and analysis of all of this specifically as it pertains to manga (and to a lesser degree, anime) in his ‘Copyright and comics in Japan: Does law explain why all the cartoons my kid watches are Japanese imports?’ (Rutgers Law Review, 55:1)

  3. there’s a dim and distant memory that lurks in my head, and it’s about twenty years old – i remember brief comments and a mention or two of the underground sharing of tapes being regarded as a minor important breakthrough in exposure for anime when it remained hard to know about, let alone see (when LDs and VHS tapes were predominantly unsubbed, expensive even outside of japan and hard to come by – and you usually had to lay out money on some original material to stand a chance of coaxing a decent copy out of someone else’s collection) and a boon for converted fans.

    problem is, i think these days were grasped upon and the grip on them never lessened, and it evolved into an excuse to maintain a position of not paying for stuff once the digital sharing and benefits of dvd prices / access took hold about a decade ago. the explanation has gradually been honed, adjusted, modified and shared so frequently that it’s clearly intended to act as a moral get-out clause that has removed itself from issues of promotion and growth, finance and morality, just to serve a very naive and youthful appetite for getting away with stuff because it’s possible to and because it’s a particularly escapist-oriented or deluded fan base that all-too-often exists in more recent converts to anime – i want it, i can get it, i’m going to have it. trying to argue against it is impossible because it’s not based in solid logic, and it doesn’t intend to be.

  4. Pingback: An Outline of Copyright Law in Japan « Helen McCarthy: A Face Made for Radio

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