National / Media | Japan Pulse

Tiramisu copyright furor highlights the internet's importance

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Allegations of copyright infringement have undermined a high-profile attempt to sell a renowned coffee-flavored Italian dessert in Tokyo.

Hero’s opened in Tokyo’s Omotesando neighborhood on Jan. 20, offering various tiramisu flavors inside Instagram-friendly mason jars decorated with illustrations of superhero-style cats. In another universe, the launch of such an establishment would be placed alongside other quirky Harajuku culinary footnotes that also include rainbow cotton candy and drinks served in faux light bulbs.

However, Hero’s immediately found itself embroiled in controversy. Internet users noticed that the new store’s name, logo and primary product bore a resemblance to Singaporean tiramisu staple The Tiramisu Hero, which has been going strong since 2012 and even has a presence in Japan, albeit via an occasional pop-up store and an online shop through Rakuten.

Making matters worse for Hero’s was an ad on television that purportedly tried to hitch itself to the Singaporean franchise, going so far as to imply that it had finally arrived in the country despite being a totally different undertaking.

Netizens reacted harshly. Twitter users came out swinging against the store and the owner of the company behind it. Some pointed out how clearly it appeared to plagiarize the logo, while others left negative comments on the Omotesando store’s Twitter account. Influencers who had earlier promoted Hero’s apologized to folks on Instagram, while others demonstrated their support to the original franchise by ordering tiramisu online.

The story then took a twist. People started looking into Gram, the company responsible for Hero’s, and discovered that it appeared to using the same logo and typeface as a pancake store in Osaka of the same name.

In its defense, a person claiming to have been involved in founding Gram claimed the entity bought the Kansai-based pancake maker a few years back and was therefore within its rights to use the logo.

Unfortunately, however, allegations regarding copyright infringements didn’t stop there. Hero’s in Omotesando initially tried to spin it as a coincidence, but eventually said they would refrain from using the problematic logo. The Tiramisu Hero, meanwhile, has thanked Japanese fans on Instagram, while also documenting a possible coincidental trip by the company to Japan.

Although the Italian dessert at the center of this debate has provided a new twist, netizens have long crusaded against pakuri, a Japanese term that describes the act of cribbing ideas from someone else.

Ever since the internet became a major center for discussion in Japan, netizens have used it as a space to shame those perceived to be stealing ideas from others for monetary gain.

This reached a boiling point in the mid-2000s, when numerous copyright infringement cases were online, including the artist behind one of J-pop duo Halcali’s albums being accused of copying another artist’s work.

Such allegations frequently appeared on the web, but more traditional forms of media tended to ignore these stories altogether.

With more and more people using the internet these days, issues that were once the domain of web nerds have become mainstream. As a result, pakuri has become a much bigger deal in recent years, most notably crystalized in the case of the initial logo for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics being scrapped after allegations of intellectual copyright theft arose.

The recent debate surrounding an Italian dessert might not quite feel as if it’s on the same plane as far as international news is concerned, but mainstream TV broadcasters and news outlets have both covered the story in a way that never would have gained traction a decade earlier.

The outrage surrounding Hero’s and its tiramisu isn’t just a lesson in making sure that branding ideas are original, it’s a reflection of how central the internet has become in everyone’s lives.

What’s more, for many it has become a way to expose questionable behavior. Tiramisu seems to be the flavor of the month today. Tomorrow? Who knows.


Postscript

Since this story was published, illustrator Gemma Correll contacted the contributor, alleging that The Tiramisu Hero had traced her work, borrowing material from her 2013 book “A Pug’s Guide To Etiquette.” Correll claims The Tiramisu Hero used her work as a basis for its logo, merchandise and several other elements in the store.

On Thursday, The Tiramisu Hero shared an Instagram post, saying that the creators behind the store were “indeed heavily inspired by the creations of Gemma Correll.”

“While we tried our best to make sure our cat drawings looked different, we did reference Gemma’s style on background, setting and certain body positions,” the post said. “It was a huge oversight on our part for not informing Gemma at the very start, to let her know that her work had inspired us and that we were referencing it while learning to draw.”

The Tiramisu Hero says it will refrain from using designs “inspired” by Correll’s work in the future.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5