Japan experts play down Olympic logo row, as Belgian designer flags legal action against IOC


Staff Writer

Although the controversy over the official emblem for 2020 Tokyo Olympics is heating up, experts say it won’t turn out to be such a big issue after all.

Earlier Thursday, Belgian designer Olivier Debie announced he will file a lawsuit against the International Olympic Committee over the official 2020 Olympics emblem, claiming Japanese graphic designer Kenjiro Sano plagiarized his work.

The official emblem for the sports event, which was unveiled at the end of last month, is said to look similar to the logo that Debie designed for a theater in the eastern Belgian city of Liege in 2011.

In a joint statement issued with his lawyer in Belgium, Debie said they had decided on legal action because Sano had not demonstrated that he had created the logo himself.

“Sano gave no explanation showing the artistic progression and development of his logo. He only explained how, according to him, the philosophy behind his design was different,” he said.

“Sano’s explanations do not appear to me to be convincing,” he added.

But a Japanese copyright expert doubted the suit would be successful.

If the Belgian designer is planning to bring a case over copyright violation, it is highly likely that the claim would be rejected by a court, Mami Karatsu, an international lawyer who is well versed in art, media and entertainment copyright issues, said.

Based on the international agreement, what copyright law protects is the author’s creativity in a work. But it’s difficult to determine what was original in a simple design like Debie’s logo, because designs representing a certain letter would become inevitably similar, she explained.

In a news conference held in Tokyo on Wednesday, Sano claimed that he had not copied Debie’s design because he had “never been to Belgium, nor seen the logo even once,” adding he was extremely shocked and pained to know his work, into which he said put all his knowledge and experience as an artistic director, is in doubt due to plagiarism claims.

Karatsu said Sano’s explanation was valid because, even though the two designs looked similar, it would not immediately be judged as a copyright violation unless there was a concrete reason that Sano’s emblem could not have been conceptualized unless he copied the Belgian theater’s logo.

“In an extreme instance, even if two designs are completely identical, that won’t immediately be the violation of copyright” if there is no proof a designer had actually imitated a certain work, she said.

Neither will the case be a violation of trademark law, as Debie’s work was not trademarked and the Olympic Organizing Committee double checked whether a similar logo had ever been used before it adopted Sano’s logo, Hidetoshi Maki, head of marketing at the organizing committee for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, said at Wednesday’s news conference.

Because the logo for the Belgian theater was not trademarked, it is likely Tokyo was unable to detect elements of Debie’s design during the “legal check” process to see whether there were similar designs extant, said Norihiko Hibiya, an associate professor of graphic design at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture, adding that cases like this were common in the design industry, especially for simple graphics like Sano’s.

Despite a resemblance, Hibiya believes Sano’s controversial emblem was not plagiarism because the T-shape logo, which stands for the first letter of Tokyo, team, and tomorrow, was just a part of his bigger design concept.

On Wednesday Sano explained that his T-shape emblem consisted of a series of simple, geometric shapes. When arranged in different ways they represent the 26 letters of the alphabet, as well as punctuation marks and the numbers one to nine.

“If Sano demonstrated the concept to Tokyo (and won the design competition for the official emblem,) I think his explanation that the design is completely different from the Belgian logo makes sense,” Hibiya said.

While believing the Tokyo 2020 emblem is not a legal violation, Hibiya says he can’t deny that the public image toward the emblem has been significantly damaged.

“But if Tokyo is really confident that there was no mistake in the process of choosing the design, I think it should stand firmly and stick with the original design” to avoid any further confusion surrounding the 2020 Olympics.

The dispute adds to the controversy surrounding the Summer Games after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered the plans for the main stadium be torn up amid growing anger over its ¥252 billion price tag.

Karatsu said despite an already damaged reputation, changing the logo at this point would further harm the international reputation of Tokyo, adding that it should explain its legal validity to settle the case.

The IOC said last week it believed there was no problem with Sano’s design for the Tokyo Olympics.

Information from AFP-JIJI added

  • wind

    As a second generation Belgian I find this pretty embarrassing. An argument against Belgian jokes, this isn’t.

  • Al_Martinez

    Hmmm, how many famous Japanese logos contain a simple letter? I guess it’s now okay to use variations on the Toyota, Honda, Suzuki, et al. logos worldwide.

  • J.P. Bunny

    Sano says he “…put all his knowledge and experience as an artistic director…” into this work. This certainly does not reflect well on his artistic abilities. Maybe it’s not to late for Abe to step in and pull this as well. Make designing the logo a contest open to all the school kiddies, with the winner being able to lead a parade, hand out a medal, or some such. Certainly would inject some clarity and originality into the logo.

  • Bradley Fried