Expired copyright license of old literary works could keep Japan’s cultural soil fertile
When it comes to reading famous literary works whose copyright license has expired, there is one piece of software that is renowned for doing the job rather well. It goes by the name of “Aozora Bunko” and is a digital contents reader available on a wide variety of devices; there’s even a version available for smartphone users. It is currently host to a plethora of copyright-free material rich in Japanese history and culture. What’s particularly exciting is that the more time goes by, the more the library of works can be seen to grow.
Anyone with an interest in old Japanese masterpieces – and can read Japanese – will surely be lured in by what this software has to offer. In this connection, on Jan 1 this year, the legendary writer Eiji Yoshikawa’s work “Miyamoto Musashi” was added to the collection. Miyamoto Musashi is a bestselling novel depicting the life of legendary samurai Musashi Miyamoto, who actually existed during the Japanese Edo era.
Just what makes all this free content possible is the rule that governs copyright licensing laws: 50 years after an author has passed away, copyrighted works are released freely into the public domain.
This year sees the author Kunio Yanagita’s work ”Tono Monogatari” (in English, The Legends of Tono) also made available. “Tono Monogatari” is a collection of folklore stories and legends passed down from generations of old in the Tono region of Japan.
Next year, the work “Zenigata Heiji Torimono Hikae”, written by Kodo Nomura, gets released. This is a famous period novel whose setting is fixed in the Edo era and depicts the fictitious detective Zenigata Heiji as he goes about capturing criminals. It has even been adapted into a TV period drama.
Some may be thinking, “Well, I’m not that much of a reader in the first place. This whole copyright issue doesn’t really affect me.” However, the expiration of the copyright license has implications in other areas as well.
Fukui, a specialist in Copyright law explains: “Once the copyright license expires, fundamentally speaking, anyone can make use of the work as they please. An example of this would be the Japanese version of ‘The Little Prince`, known as `Hoshi no Ouji sama` in Japanese. This title’s copyright license expired in 2005 and subsequently saw a number of Japanese publishing companies releasing new translations. This actually served to revive the work and create quite a boom, which in turn secured a new fan base. What’s more, not having to pay a copyright fee means that a piece of work is much easier to adapt into a play or film format.”
Fukui believes that the birth of derivative or secondary works is crucial in resurrecting past literature and preventing it from fading into the unknown. When a new character or story related to the original work comes into existence, everything takes on a whole new perspective and helps to spark the interest of the modern audience.
“When a piece of literature is still under the jurisdiction of the copyright license, it is considerably difficult to adapt, or deviate from the original work. There’s a famous anecdote that demonstrates this well,” Fukui said. “The masterpiece animation `Ginga tetsudo no yoru`(‘The Night of the Milky Way Train’ in English) is famous for its protagonist being a cat but it is rumored that whilst the novel’s copyright license was still valid, turning the protagonist from a human (original work) in to a cat (derivative work) just wasn’t possible. Of course there will always be some element of restriction, but once the copyright license expires, it’s possible to experiment much more freely with the original material.”
To give you a bit more of an understanding of this, the above mentioned Yoshikawa’s work “Miyamoto Musashi” has already been adapted into a comic and a period TV drama, but from here on, it is predicted that with the end of the copyright license, a new era of derived works will begin to make their way on to the market.
The expiration of a copyright license can often mean the birth of a new literary work and add to the richness of a culture as a whole. “This is one of the important reasons behind the copyright limit itself.”
What’s also important here is that any secondary works are then also accompanied by their own copyright license. For example, it’s quite possible that if a new piece of work based on “Tono Monogatari” were to be exported onto the international market, it could become a big hit and create considerable earnings.
“Cool Japan’s literary works have real potential in projecting the country further on the international scale. A large amount of content whose copyright has expired often portrays the older, more fascinating aspects of Japanese culture and history. I have great hope that these works will increase recognition of Japan’s literary world on a grand scale,” admits Fukui.
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