Pirating the Straw Hat Pirates

To Ghent, Belgium where conceptual artist and provocateur Ilan Manouach has thrown the cat among the pigeons with a new artwork that reprints 21,450 pages of Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece manga as a single, unreadable book in a slipcase, with the word “D’oh!” prominent in Japanese on its end.

“Online participatory culture and the medium’s new networked possibilities have intensified the nature of comics beyond the scope of professional, established expertise with new and disruptive forms of entrepreneurial fan culture,” writes Manouach on his website. “Readers now actively scan, translate and distribute online their favourite manga series. ONEPIECE is a product of this expanded digital production belt.”

I think what he means to say is that his artwork has been made in reference to the glorious world of scanlation, but if that’s his intention, he is walking right into a copyright minefield. Japanese publishers are unsurprisingly unsupportive of scanlations, since they amount to copyright theft. Nor can Manouach trot out the facetious old saw about “exposure”, because the worldwide bestseller One Piece does not require his help in finding readers.

In a thorny legal area, he implies that his artwork is safe because it is unreadable, and therefore not infringing anyone’s copyright. Except nothing has stopped manga publishers selling “unreadable” books before (don’t get me started…!), and Manouach is offering copies of his supposedly unreadable book for €1900 a throw, in a very limited print run of 50.

“The product you mentioned is not official,” said Keita Murano of the rights department at Shueisha, One Piece‘s publisher. “We don’t give permission to them.” Or in other words, if Manouach expects to coin in €95,000 from selling an unlicensed edition of One Piece, unreadable or not, Shueisha is going to come down on him like a manga hammer.

As a work of art, ONEPIECE is fantastically thought-provoking – a material evocation of what it means today for a single “story” to run on into multiple volumes, which either clutter up one’s bookshelves or sit, unnoticed on e-readers. Manouach, who recently earned a PhD in comics epistemology from Aalto University in Finland, adds it to a list of similar intellectual stunts, including his Topovoros books, which are designed, printed, bound and distributed exclusively within a single district of Athens, and Tintin akei Congo, an edition of Tintin in the Congo translated with anti-colonial verve into the Congolese language. You have not heard the last from him, I guarantee it, but he has not heard the last from Shueisha.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

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