Several weeks ago, I was surprised to read that a revision to the copyright law would go into effect on Dec. 30, extending the current protection period from 50 years after an author’s death to 70 years. When the extension was first discussed as part of the original 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, I was under the impression that Japan had accepted the provision under pressure from the United States. Then U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the TPP and the copyright extension seemed dead, but apparently Japan revived it for the renegotiated TPP-11, which doesn’t include the United States.

Intellectual property is a significant export market for the United States. Entertainment companies such as Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros., who own rights to classic films and characters, have pressured the government to demand longer protections from trading partners. It’s probably less of a priority for the trading partners themselves, so I wondered when and why the Japanese government had approved the extension.

As it turns out, the law was finalized by the Upper House on June 29, and according to a July 6 article by J-cast News, it went through a debate process, during which opposition lawmaker Taro Yamamoto asked whether the ruling coalition had calculated the monetary benefit to Japan of a 20-year copyright extension. The government said it couldn’t answer his question “quantitatively.”

J-cast News said the bill was not covered in detail by any major media outlet. The day after it was passed, the revision was mentioned briefly on the front page of the Asahi Shimbun, but other dailies mostly neglected it, not because the bill was controversial, but because there were other Diet-related stories they deemed more important, including legislation to allow skilled foreign workers into Japan and the ongoing Moritomo and Kake Gakuen school scandals. The copyright issue had been discussed during the first TPP negotiations, so the press apparently didn’t think it was worth going over again.

One of the few media outlets to take the revision seriously was TBS Radio’s Session-22 talk show. On at least two programs this past year, host Chiki Ogiue wondered out loud why Japan decided to join the rest of the world in extending copyright protection another 20 years. On June 29, speaking as a published writer, he said he didn’t see any real benefit in the extension for the vast majority of Japanese creators. Many artists and writers count on royalties to make a living, but what about after they died? The longer their works are protected and thus available only to those who pay for them, the more likely it is they will disappear from the cultural conversation.

“I have no intention of leaving my copyrights to my descendants,” he said, acknowledging that he’d consider himself lucky if people still wanted to read his work that far into the future. “It’s fine with me if my books eventually become free to anyone 50 years after I write it.”

Ogiue is not the first person to question copyright extensions. Back in 1976, when the United States, in deference to the Berne Convention of 1886, passed a law extending protection to the life of the author plus 50 years, or 75 years for works of corporate authorship, people were already complaining. Their argument was that after a certain amount of time intellectual properties should enter the public domain. As long as they are protected, the public does not have ready access to them. This argument has never had much currency with the authorities and, in 1998, the United States extended protections to 70 years following the death of an author, or 95 years after “publication” for other rights holders. Mickey Mouse, which first appeared in 1928, will not enter the public domain until 2023, although some believe Disney will find a way of keeping the rodent to itself forever.

Some companies in Japan may benefit from the extension because of properties they own, but for “99 percent” of authors, according to attorney Kensaku Fukui, the law will effectively “bury their work,” as he told Ogiue on a segment of Session-22 that aired prior to the passage of the revised copyright law. This is ironic since the revision also addresses the creation of digital archives, an area where Japan lags behind the rest of the industrialized world. Presently, anyone who wants to digitize copyrighted works and upload them onto the net, even in partial form, must gain permission from the rights holder, and that can be difficult. The new law states an intention to make it easier to digitize works for archival and educational purposes without specifying ways of doing so.

The new 70-year provision would seem to contradict this spirit of sharing. Properties that entered the public domain because their authors died more than 50 years ago could, starting Dec. 30, return to copyright protection, depending on when they died. More to the point, the new law allows anyone with an interest in a particular work, not just rights holders, to sue anyone else for perceived copyright violation. That means the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers (JASRAC), which makes money by administering rights, can sue anyone for using a composition without permission. Even if a living artist allows someone to use their work for free, they can’t stop JASRAC from suing after the revision goes into effect. The ostensible purpose is to discourage piracy, but it will also have a deadening effect on so-called fair use. The vitality of something as economically important to Japan as Comic Market (Comiket) that relies heavily on fair use, could be undermined.

The media’s disinterest is curious given that Japan’s roughly ¥600 billion intellectual content trade deficit each year will likely increase with the revision. In June, Ogiue theorized that perhaps the TPP-11 signatories were hoping to lure the U.S. back into the fold, but when he asked Fukui back in May why he thought Japan had changed its mind, the lawyer seemed stumped himself.

“Maybe it was just inertia,” he replied.

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