Thursday, July 25, 2013

Will Miss #23 - copyright infringement (reflection)

These are almost certainly unauthorized bits of Hello Kitty merchandise. This character's copyright is probably one of the most infringed worldwide. Though these were in Harajuku, I doubt anyone from Sanrio was walking around with a lawyer.

I learned a thing or two about copyright back in my days as a KISS (the rock group) fan. In the early 90's, KISS had lost a lot of their popularity and finding information about them in magazines was difficult. The fans, who were hungry for their KISS fix, found a way to make up for the fact that their favorite band no longer graced magazine covers by making their own magazines or "fanzines". A plethora of them popped up and a handful gained fair popularity.

These magazines were absolutely a labor of love as it was very expensive to print and distribute them. No one was making money off of their work. In fact, most people were lucky not to operate at a loss. The best they could hope for as a way of benefiting was to gain access to KISS information via press kits or the ability to communicate with management for news. At the top of the list of potential perks was a backstage pass if your fanzine caught the eye of the band or their handlers.

Despite the fact that fans were promoting the band for free and not making any money in the process, KISS's lawyers sent them a letter and asked them to cease and desist in all use of the band's trademark logo with two "lightning bolt" S's. This seemed like an enormous slap in the face to those who loved the band. Why would they be so petty? Well, it is about copyright laws.

The way it works with copyright is that, if you don't protect it, you lose it. Even though KISS had no philosophical problem with their fans using their logo, if they didn't stop them from using it, they would lose the ability to stop others from using it. This is why Spinal Tap get together every once in a very blue moon and perform. If they don't, someone else can take their band's name.

One of the reasons that I think copyright infringement abroad is often not protected is that it is more trouble than it is worth tracking down and trying to enforce such rights. It is also the case that, rights are different in various countries so the laws often don't protect them. In the U.S., occasionally an entity will not protect its copyright. Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson comes to mind considering how many stickers I see of Calvin peeing on things. This situation creates the free-for-all of products which humorously usurp the copyright of various big wigs in the business world. I still miss seeing those products.


  1. I think you have just answered my question as to why youtube videos of Kyu Sakamoto are constantly being taken down due to “copyright infringement.” Although a long-time fan of his 1963 song, “Sukiyaki,” a couple of years ago I also became a super-fan of the singer himself, after discovering a number of his other songs on youtube. I have purchased 10 CDs of his as a result of stumbling onto a some 50-year-old videos! It seemed to be a major marketing error to pull his work and eliminate all of that exposure. Now it makes sense. (I don’t like it, but it makes sense.)
    Incidentally, thank you for this blog. You have taught me so much about Japanese culture.

    1. I love comments like yours. They make me feel much more useful! :-)

      Thanks for your kind words and for taking the time to leave a comment!

  2. You're mixing your terminology! Trademarks are what need to be protected or they are lost. KISS with 2 lightning bolts is trademarked, not copyrighted.

    Copyrights refer to the creative content part of a creation. The specific order of ideas that make up a story in a book or the melodies and lyrics of a song. Copyrights cannot ever be "lost", they either expire or you can get rid of them in a transaction, but you can't lose them. You also don't need to register them, you are granted the copyright just by producing a work.

    Trademarks instead are about brand identification. The logos you use that people associate with your work. These DO have to be protected or you can lose them. This happens because trademarks can't be protected if they are considered "generic", or that your brand name is associated with that entire class of products, not just your own. An example would be rollerblades or kleenex, both brand names that became generic to describe inline skates and tissue paper respectively. A brand that may run into this into the future is google with online searching. Trademarks can be registered with governments to get some additional benefits, but they don't need to be.

    You have a copyright on the content of this blog, no one can post the same content you have created without violating your copyright. You may or may not have a trademark on "1000 things about japan" depending on what you could convince a judge of, but it probably isn't distinctive enough.

    ...this all might seem awfully pedantic, but it's pretty important.

    1. You may be right!

      People do repost my content, incidentally. They do so without permission, and it seems that, unless I want to hire a lawyer, I can't really protect it. :-(

  3. Yeah, that is really unfortunate. They are definitely infringing on your rights, but like you said, unless you wanted to take them to court, there isn't anything you can do. I have no idea if "politely asking them to stop" would even work over the internet. And suing is way too much time and effort for a blog that, I assume, you aren't making much of any money off of =\


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