TPP copyright talks could shut the book on otaku fan fiction

March 29, 2014


Tokyo company employee Tatsuya Usami is worried about developments in talks over copyright protection in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade initiative.

The 23-year-old is not concerned that the trade agreement may affect his job, but rather, his hobby.

Usami, an amateur manga artist, sells “dojinshi,” self-published fan fiction that borrows characters from popular manga, anime, video games and other sources.

Like many of his peers in fan fiction, Usami does not obtain permission from the copyright owner over the use of the characters--in his case, ones from a video game.

But the resident of Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward said he pays respect to the original artists and their work.

“It is difficult for me to build characters from scratch since I am not a professional,” Usami said Dec. 30 while attending the 87th Comic Market, a famed event featuring fan fiction held at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center in the capital’s Koto Ward. “People who buy my manga like it if I can manipulate well-known, attractive characters in a way that pleases me.”

Usami and other creators of fan fiction, however, could face the possibility of legal prosecution as copyright violators in the future, depending on the outcome of TPP negotiations.

Some countries are apparently demanding that Japan clamp down on knock-off and pirated works in the intellectual property arena, even if the copyright holder does not object to it.

Under current Japanese copyright law, authorities take action only after the copyright holder, such as the artist of the original work or publisher, lodges a formal complaint.

“Even if the copyright holder does not take issue with the publication of dojinshi, if we are busted by authorities based on a tip from a third party, our freedom of expression will be suppressed,” Usami said.

Many experts say the Japanese anime and manga subculture has thrived due in part to a tacit understanding in society that fan fiction should be accepted to a certain extent to allow room for amateurs to shine.

The recent Comic Market is one indication of the level of demand for dojinshi and other works of fan fiction. A total of 520,000 visitors attended--many of them teenagers or in their 20s--while about 35,000 groups sold dojinshi and other related goods.

According to an event official, dojinshi accounted for 60 to 70 percent of the overall sales.

Although it was Usami’s 10th time to participate in the biannual market, he said sales of his publication are too small to make a living on them alone. So for him, it is just a pastime.

Kensaku Fukui, a lawyer who has dealt with many cases involving copyright issues, said it would be a stretch to say that copyright holders are significantly inconvenienced by dojinshi creators.

“The creation of derivative works has helped the expansion of the market (for anime and manga), a rich gray zone built based on a gentleman’s agreement between original artists and amateur creators,” he said.

If the copyright law was enforced without a formal complaint, not only dojinshi, but also parodied creations of movies and literature, could be subject to a crackdown, Fukui said.

He added that even cosplayers could be a target, especially if their costumes were elaborately made and if a video of the costume play was uploaded on the Internet.

“If people think about the possibility of coming under questioning, they might cower,” he said.

Other legal experts, however, said that playing dress-up is unlikely to become the focus of a crackdown even if regulations are tightened as long as they do so privately.

Without any clear idea of whom or what could fall victim to possible new laws, a move to pre-empt any potential trouble is already under way.

Last August, the Common Sphere, a nonprofit group aimed at crafting copyright rules to accommodate the digital age, developed a mark that indicates the original artists or other copyright owners approve of fan fiction featuring their characters.

But the mark does not mean dojinshi creators are allowed to simply copy the creation of the original artist. Rather, they are expected to demonstrate their own creativity with the use of characters.

Ken Akamatsu, a professional artist who led the effort to create the mark, said amateur creators’ fan fiction should not be restricted due to the copyright issue.

“I, too, used to be a dojinshi creator,” said Akamatsu, who is known for international manga hits such as “Love Hina” and “NEGIMA!”

“The larger a pool of amateurs there is, the better professional artists’ skills get.”

Shoji Yamada, professor of informatics with the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, said a possible crackdown by authorities on fan fiction could be detrimental to the freedom of expression.

He suggested that the publishing industry should consider establishing rules to clarify to what extent such activities can be accepted.

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A large number of manga and anime fans flood the Comic Market, an event held at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, on Dec. 30. (Satsuki Fujita)

A large number of manga and anime fans flood the Comic Market, an event held at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, on Dec. 30. (Satsuki Fujita)

  • A large number of manga and anime fans flood the Comic Market, an event held at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, on Dec. 30. (Satsuki Fujita)
  • A mark created by the Common Sphere, a private group, indicates approval by the original artists for the use of their characters in fan fiction. (Satsuki Fujita)

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