The rapid spread of computer networks is creating a flood of digitalized information in a broad range of fields, including publishing, music, broadcast, movies and plays. This is leading to the rampant piracy of writers’ copyrights and musicians’ performing rights. Legal action is urgently needed to stop it.

That puts the spotlight on the Copyright Law, which has been amended on an ad hoc basis almost every year ever since it took effect in 1971. But stopgap revision cannot keep pace with the rapid and broad changes occurring in the digital age. The existing copyright system, which is premised on analog technology, is out of sync with reality. It is time to craft a new system based on digital technology. For that, a new copyright law tailored to the needs of the digital age is needed.

Trend-setting Internet technologies, such as those for music delivery, digital photography and online bookselling, have one thing in common: the great convenience of copying. Copies as good as original products can be made easily — and processed just as easily — by personal computers. The downside is that it opens the door to widespread abuse.

In 1996, the World Intellectual Property Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, adopted two conventions — one governing copyrights, the other concerning performances and records. These pacts are commonly called “Internet treaties.” Signatory nations, including Japan, are required to prevent — and take compensatory measures for — acts of “avoiding technical safeguards,” such as removing without permission anticopying devices built into digital products and doctoring copyright management information incorporated in various devices. In June last year, Japan amended its Copyright Law to prohibit these acts.

The United States, the chief promoter of the Internet treaties, is setting the pace for nations around the world. In 1998, it established the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to set rules of domestic implementation for the WIPO conventions. The law provides for penalties against acts of “avoiding” copyright-protection systems and spells out the obligation to pay damages for such abuses.

In Japan, copies made at home or in libraries for limited private use are not regulated by the Copyright Law. Under the WIPO treaties and the U.S. digital act, however, copyright protection is provided even for such personal-use copies. In Europe and other regions, such blanket coverage is opposed on the grounds that it favors business interests.

The work of updating the Copyright Law — a necessary followup to the WIPO treaties — has created certain perception gaps vis-a-vis related laws now in force, such as the one that prohibits the use of others’ trademarks. In January, a division of the Copyright Council submitted a report calling for amendments to the law regulating copyright intermediary services. Specifically, the report says the existing approval system for copyright-management groups — which handle copyright procedures on behalf of copyright owners, such as collecting user fees — should be changed to the registration system.

The idea, of course, is to promote deregulation in this area by updating the intermediary-business law, which has not been revised since it was enacted in 1939. Copyright-management groups say decontrol would slow, rather than speed up, procedural work and could harm the interests of copyright owners. But music companies that see a window of opportunity in the copyright-management business are reportedly in favor of legislative revision.

The government is expected to send a revision bill to the Diet later this year, possibly in October. The bill, whatever its final shape, is likely to change the traditional methods of copyright management in this country. With the onset of the digital revolution, the copyright-agent business is also entering a new age.

Japan has already completed most of the domestic work needed to implement the WIPO treaties. But many questions still remain unanswered, such as how to protect fashion designs. The multimedia subcommittee of the Copyright Council is discussing questions involving technical safeguards, while the international subcommittee is studying issues of information technology and e-commerce. Specifically how the debates will develop remains to be seen. However, one thing is clear: Stopgap measures won’t do.

What should be done about copies made by digital devices? What about music distributed over the Internet? Answers must be found to these questions, which go to the heart of the copyright system. Do not put new wine into old bottles. Dealing with the digital age requires the creation of new systems. The work must start with a wholesale review of existing systems.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.