It’s convention season again, when thousands of fans come together to show their enthusiasm for their favorite things from comics to movies and everything in between. Fan conventions have popped up all over the world following the first one1in New York City in 1964, and allowed fans a space to interact with creators of the medium and meet like-minded people. However, not only were fans now given a way to meet creators and trade past issues with each other, they now had an avenue through which to display their particular fandom. From this mentality, cosplay, fan art, and fanzines became an integral part of the convention culture with artist alleys and cosplay contests now a staple in pretty much every convention today. No other convention captures this mentality more than Japan’s Comic Market (or Comiket for short), which devotes at least a third of its space to a very specific fan creation, doujinshi.
Started in 19752 with just 700 people, Comiket now draws more than 550,000 attendees3 during its three day event. For comparison, San Diego Comic-Con caps at 130,000 and New York Comic-Con recorded 167,000 attendees last year4. Comiket’s massive convention center is split into three sections: corporate booths, cosplay areas, and doujinshi. Doujinshi can be a hotly debated topic in Japan, as much of it requires the use of copyrighted material. In the U.S., this is echoed in fan art and fanzine culture but fans face a higher likelihood of takedown notices or even lawsuits. However, Japan may provide some ideas for how to create a good middle ground to both support fan artists and still value copyright holders.
In Japanese, “doujin” refers to a group of people with shared interests, and “shi” is the shortened form of “zasshi” meaning magazine. Put together, doujinshi are published magazines that focus on a specific genre or group of fans. They get split even further into two main categories: original (“ichiji sousaku”) and parody (“niji sousaku”). Original works are exactly as they sound, publications of original characters and stories. Parody, on the other hand, uses characters and settings from pre-existing works, putting established characters into new situations or melding multiple series into crossover stories.
Japanese culture has always had some key differences from much of the Western world, with a focus on a person’s impact on their community. This community-centric view plays a huge role in how publishers interact with their fans and view the creation of fan works. Even though publishers share convention space with the fans selling doujinshi of their intellectual property, many do not try to stop the publication of these comics and merchandise. In part, this stems from their view that going after fans paints their company in a negative light to the community. On the other side of the equation, doujinshi can actually be beneficial to Japanese publishers, serving as a great source of advertising, a way to engage their community, and as a way to scout new talent. In fact, some of the greatest manga and anime artists5 started as doujinshi creators, such as CLAMP who started as a twelve member teenage circle making yaoi and parody works before moving on to create the ever popular Card Captor Sakura and Chobits.
Japanese publishers don’t see these fan circles as much of a threat to their profits either. The vast majority of fan artists hardly make enough to cover convention and printing fees, sometimes left with boxes of unwanted copies at the end. In a survey6 of 4,000 artists, just 2% reported selling 1,000 or more copies and 47% reported selling under 30. Just 4% of those said they did it to make a living, but most (22%) said they did it to relieve stress. When you add on the fact that it is frowned upon for people in Japan to file what they consider unnecessary lawsuits, it becomes clear how doujinshi has become an industry in its own right. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also spoke out in defence of doujinshi, saying7: “Doujinshi don’t compete in the market with the original works and don’t damage the original creators’ profits, so they are shinkokuzai.” Shinkokuzai here means parody, so all doujinshi under Japanese law are considered parodies and thus protected from copyright lawsuits.
America had a similar culture that has diminished and changed over the decades: fanzines. Fanzines were all the rage in the 60’s before the advent of the internet gave us access to sites like Fanfiction.net. Fanzines have been around8 since the 30s, but didn’t focus heavily on fan created fiction until the 60s, around the time Star Trek was taking off. Science Fiction fans were the main driving force behind these magazines, but they soon branched out to other genres fairly quickly over the next couple decades, even into the underground comics scene. (Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present is a great resource if you want to learn more). Much like doujinshi, there have been a few creators who have come out of this underground culture as well, including: Melinda Gebbie (Lost Girls with Alan Moore), Art Spiegelman (Maus), and Harvey Pekar (American Splendor). The fanzines of this era were similar to Japanese doujinshi in that the fans edited, published, and sold them to a dedicated following, provided an avenue through which creators could hone their craft.
Walking through a convention hall is an experience in and of itself, with Dealer’s Rooms and Artist Alleys often sharing the same space. Big publishers, fan retailers, and smaller artists are squished together as tight as fire code will allow. Then there’s the booths that carry a huge swath of fan art posters and prints, sometimes within eyesight of the official booths. This kind of merchandise, and fan art in general, has been a huge source of contention for people on both sides of the divide, and there have always been cases of copyright holders shutting down9 or filing lawsuits10 against those they feel are infringing on their intellectual property. That is the key difference between Japan and America’s handling of fan works, specifically U.S. publisher’s willingness to bring lawsuits against fans.
While there is absolutely a time and a place to defend infringements on copyright, there are also points where the cultural process of making art should be supported. In Japan, another reason many publishers don’t shut down doujinshi circles is because there’s a widely accepted culture of borrowing and transformation. You can see it the clearest in Japan’s history of manga/anime development. Osamu Tezuka, heralded as the “God of Manga”, reportedly11 took most of his inspiration from Disney characters when he created his most famous work Astro Boy. His highly recognizable style went on to influence a huge number of future artists. However, there are a lot of other factors affecting America’s relationship with fan art left to unpack, particularly the fact that fair use suits are decided on a case-by-case basis and the prevalence of work-for-hire contracts among comic artists.
Copyright law12 is pretty cut-and-dry most of the time. Basically, if you don’t own the copyright or trademark or haven’t paid for a distribution license, then you can’t produce works featuring that content. However, there is the matter of the Fair Use Statute which was formed with the belief that not all copying should be banned, and four semi-vague guidelines13 were implemented to restrict the use of copyrighted material. Even with the guidelines, it can be tough to iron-out what exactly constitutes Fair Use though, considering there are a few lesser factors to consider as well as judicial interpretation that can complicate matters. There have been a lot of creators and publishers who have simply turned a blind eye to the whole fan scene, just so long as those works don’t gain too much traction or become monetized. Some artists have even started point fingers14 at Marvel for being too soft on people selling prints of their work even as their parent company is hailed as one of the most aggressive policers of copyright. But there’s another big issue behind the development of the fanart/artist alley scene: the fact that many comic creators don’t have the rights to distribute prints or merchandise of their work. Some of the larger comic publishers rely on work-for-hire contracts to create established series such as Batman or the Avengers. It is understood that these artists are only lending their skills to an already established brand, and so sign away all rights to distribute or create merchandise. Many artists have tried to renegotiate these rights, but few have succeeded. This opens up a giant demand for merchandise that these publishers haven’t managed to fill, leading fans to pick up the slack.
So how do we create a good middle ground to both support artists and fans while still valuing copyright holders? For starters, we can take some queues from the doujinshi scene. Doujinshi conventions require the fan circle to submit their comics for review before tabling. They’re subsequently examined for how much their comics differ from the original, and any comics that stick too close to the source material without adding something new are rejected. This keeps the comics in the realm of parody law, ensuring they’re transformative and don’t create any unnecessary trouble for the copyright holder. Adopting this practice would go a long way to easing some concerns about copyright infringement in the U.S. Secondly, advocating for better contracts for comic creators would also allow more art to be produced to fill the consumer need not met by the publishers. On top of this, major publishers should examine the areas in which their merchandise is lacking, looking to fan artists and conventions to see what people actually want to buy, and actively recruit (fans or otherwise) to fill that niche. It’s important to remember, however, that fans are the driving force behind the popularity of any creation. Whatever publisher can harness that enthusiasm in a positive manner will have free marketing for life.
Allison Ziebka is a Boston local with a Masters in publishing. You can find her snuggling up with a good manga and her favorite fox mug.
You can also find her reviews on romance anime, manga, and comics at bloomreviewsblog.wordpress.com