Akamatsu: Japanese copyright changes threaten fan comics

Here's a quick thought experiment: What would happen to you if you made your own Mickey Mouse comic and sold it online or at conventions? You would expect to feel the wrath of Disney pretty quickly, wouldn't you?

Yet doujinshi, fan-made comics, are a huge part of Japanese culture, and many of them involve characters from existing manga series. And Ken Akamatsu, creator of Negima and Love Hina—as well as his own doujinshi—wants it to stay that way, which is why he is speaking out against Japan joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, a trade agreement would make copyright laws uniform among the nine signatories, including the U.S. If Japan signs on, Akamatsu says, the new regulations would have a chilling effect on the doujinshi market.

Japan's current copyright laws allow publishers to tolerate a certain amount of remixing of copyrighted characters, although there are limits: In 2007, for instance, the publisher Shogakukan took legal action against the creator of a Doraemon doujinshi that not only perfectly mimicked the look of the original manga (one of the most popular in all of Asia) but also sold over 13,000 copies.

That's far off the scale of most doujinshi, which typically sell in much smaller numbers, and on balance, many observers think that the doujinshi phenomenon is good for the manga market, because it builds interest for the series and characters and provides a training ground for new creators—perhaps the best known being Rumiko Takahashi, creator of InuYasha and Ranma 1/2, who got her start creating doujinshi under the guidance of Lone Wolf and Cub artist Kazuo Koike.

While sales of an individual doujinshi are small, the phenomenon is a big one. Comiket, the Japanese comics market that draws over half a million doujinshi sellers and buyers to the Tokyo Big Sight convention center twice a year, may very well be the world's largest comics convention.

The new rules would allow police and prosecutors to take action against copyright violators without a formal complaint from the copyright holder, which would make such actions much more likely, and it would allow fines to be levied against the violators. The agreement would also have a chilling effect on businesses that import Japanese anime, figurines, and other products without the copyright holders' permission. While a ban on "parallel imports" seems like a quaint relic of an earlier age, some copyright holders want one in place to keep cheaper imported goods from competing with their own product. The law would also extend copyright terms to match the terms current in the U.S. None of this is good for the thriving fan culture that has made manga and anime such a phenomenon in Japan. As the retailer site ICv2 observes,

Perhaps given the relative success of the manga industry in Japan, American copyright laws should be changed to mirror Japan’s rather than vice versa.

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