One Bad Apple

Anders Gonsalves da Silva lit up the Twittersphere in September with a screed aimed at Apple, accusing them not only of deleting films from his iTunes library without warning, but also offering him nothing but a couple of “rentals” in compensation. The Interweb was soon out in the street with pitchforks and torches, decrying the theft of a consumer’s property.

A few days later, someone pointed out some critical missing information. Da Silva had recently moved house, not just down the road, but from Australia to Canada. He had paid for his videos in Australia, but the sale of an Australian version did not amount to the sale of an identical Canadian version. But it wasn’t until the three films were named – Cars, Cars 2 and Grand Budapest Hotel – that I realised what had happened. Apple did not delete his films. He deleted his right to the versions he had bought, by moving to a territory where they were no longer the same films. They were not actually “identical” at all.

Yes, indeed, we’re back in the world of territorial lockout – familiar to anime fans in days of yore – whereby the tape or disc you buy to watch in one territory is only watchable in that territory, unless you have a special player. The digital version, however, seems a little more complicated.

I can’t speak as to the international variance for Grand Budapest Hotel, but having bought copies of Cars in several different countries, I can see precisely why the film rights would be slightly different. Many Pixar films drop in a little bit of targeted hyper-localisation, effectively turning each territory’s version into a unique work. In the original Cars, for example, Lightning McQueen’s off-screen agent Harv is played by Jeremy Piven in North America, plainly reprising his character as Ari Gold from Entourage. But in the UK release (which is presumably the one released in Australia), Harv’s voice is provided by Top Gear’s producer-punching petrol-head Jeremy Clarkson, struggling a little to be quite as Californian.

As the Internet ire has died down, it seems that da Silva can “easily” access his films again by moving back to Australia, or by convincing Apple that he has done so with the use of a VPN and an Australian home address on his credit card. But since it would be cheaper to just buy them again in Canada, I guess that’s where we are. If he’d just stuck to DVDs, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Before you ask, in the Japanese dub of Cars, Harv is played by the late Tomoyuki Dan, an actor best known in the anime world as Ishikawa in Ghost in the Shell: ARISE, and as the Japanese voice of Ben Stiller.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #182, 2018.

Taxing Problems

maoyuThis month’s big news in the anime world is the sentence handed down by the Tokyo District court to Daisuke Umezu, better known to anime fans by his writing name Mamare Touno. The author of series such as Maoyu and Log Horizon, Umezu had been indicted for tax evasion, on the grounds that he neglected to declare royalties to the Japanese tax man of an extra 122 million yen (that’s £754,000). His company was fined an additional seven million (£43,000) and he will have to wear a three-year suspended sentence, conditional on him not re-offending.

Let me start by saying how pleased I am that there is an author on the planet who can actually find himself owing that much. JK Rowling and Dan Brown are outliers – the average professional writer in the UK still earns barely £12,000 a year. Umezu’s accounts make it very clear that, in Japan at least, there is a thriving market of readers and, presumably, intellectual property spin-offs that will reward someone who writes something that readers and producers love – long may it continue. As my accountant occasionally mumbles, if your worst problem is paying more tax, then you’re not doing badly. And notably it’s Umezu’s company that has been fined – corporate tax law is a whole other ball game, in which ignorance is no defence. If you are running a company, you can’t just shrug and say you didn’t read the small print in the rules; you are expected to know what the rules are.

Umezu has been under house arrest for four months, so one might consider this time served. But lock the average writer in his home for 16 weeks, and he is liable to write another novel, so that’s Umezu already well on his way to paying his next tax bill. It paints a very different picture of the Japanese media than the one implied in a recent Tokyo government boondoggle, which offers a 300,000 yen grant (£1800) for anyone willing to make a ten-minute pilot for a new anime. That’s peanuts, not just to an author like Umezu, but to any anime company, which would be sure to spend ten times that money on such a venture. Your correspondent can’t see the point in it – it seems like a half-hearted measure to kick-start new productions, when as the success of Umezu’s enterprises seems to suggest, there are already plenty of stories out there that real people are already prepared to pay real money for. Long may that continue, too.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #151, 2016.

Bring it On!

Sport0018CheerleadingIn a plot worthy of a quirky anime show, two groups of feuding cheerleaders have prompted a US court battle that may spell the end of the world. Varsity Spirit, a company that makes mini-skirts and hair ribbons, is suing Star Athletica, another company that makes mini-skirts and hair ribbons. Varsitywants Star to stop copying some of its products; Star has gone to the Supreme Court, protesting that clothes are “useful articles” rather than works of intellectual property, and hence that you can’t put a trademark on pom-poms.

Prepare the drama torpedoes. Varsity has requested a “writ of certiorari”, or in Earth-language, a ruling on whether or not costumes can copy other costumes. If the judges are able to cut through the hair-pulling and face-scratching on this one, they will have to decide who owns a look. The future of dressing up will amount to a show of hands, because an unlikely ruling in Star’s favour would open up the floodgates to shutting down (or at least regulating) cosplay.

The idea is so preposterous that I previously suggested it as an April Fool’s Day gag last year on the Manga UK blog, but the world cosplay community is up in arms about it. Although there has been dressing up in Japan for decades, cosplay as we know it was born from what lawyers call the separability of rights, when Japanese fans in the 1980s realised that copyright didn’t apply to apparel in games and films. And anime companies merrily looked the other way, because cosplay didn’t really hurt anyone. Varsity and Star are fighting this one out because each one stands to make or lose money.

A certain anime company infamously gave up supporting cosplay competitions some years ago, because bosses realised that the participants were too busy sewing their sequins to actually pay for any of the anime products. But even if this ludicrous case was ruled in favour of Star, it would be sales suicide for an anime company to issue an actual cease-and-desist order to costumers, unless they already believed that costumers didn’t buy their product anyway, and that consequently the company had nothing to lose…

Fannish endeavours are only tolerated because they are amateur. And cosplayers can expect the tacit support of corporations for as long as they perform some sort of function. They give people something to do on convention evenings. Magazines get to run pretty pictures next to columns on tedious legal matters. And, supposedly, they function as a form of free promotion for the anime. But as two entrepreneurs recently discovered when they tried to sell camouflage costumes based on a convention hotel carpet pattern, companies will come down hard when you actually try to profit from something they own.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #149, 2016.


Grey Exporting

milkycrisis-1His name was Supap Kirtsaeng and he made a few bucks on the side. While a studying in the USA, he realised that while his expensive college textbooks were also available in substantially cheaper editions in his native Thailand. So, he figured, why not buy a few and and sell them to his mates? Why not buy a dozen? A hundred?

John Wiley & Sons, a respectable academic press, took Kirtsaeng to court, claiming that his little sideline had already notched up lost sales of $1.2 million. And after appeal, Kitsaeng won in March of this year, with a Supreme Court ruling in his favour, stating that the First Sale Doctrine supported his little loophole. According to American law, in line with the laws of many other countries, once you buy an item for yourself, it’s your legal right to do whatever the hell you like with it, including selling it to someone else.

You may be wondering, what the hell does that have to do with you? Well… for starters, don’t be surprised if it’s a major contributor to the new X-Box policy on forcing people to rent access to their games instead of buying them outright. More importantly for the anime fan, it makes it unpleasantly clear to Japanese rights holders that if something sells cheaper, say, in the UK, than it does in Japan, then it is unlikely to be possible to argue someone can’t import it back into Japan. Take the argument to extremes, and it is a strong case for making all foreign fans pay the same high costs as Japanese fans, in order to protect the Japanese business.

Fast forward to June, and suddenly Macross Plus is released in Japan as a region-free blu-ray with English sub and dub. Great news for you if you want to drop £70 on it. But why on earth would a British distributor buy the rights, when they already know a substantial number of customers will have already bought it direct from Japan? The anime companies are now calling our bluffs. We said grey importing wasn’t worth worrying about. Okay, they’ve said, how do you feel about grey exporting…?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #113, 2013.