Copyright protection in Japan

Copyright protection in Japan

Copyrights are one major subset of an area of interest to many American firms doing business in Japan - intellectual property rights. This has been a sore spot in US-Japan relations, but over the past few years the Japanese have moved to strengthen intellectual property rights.

For example, in 1988 Japan amended its copyright law. With these amendments, criminal penalties were imposed on stores that knowingly sold or displayed pirated software, audio tapes or video cassettes.

The copyright law was further amended in 1991 to increase copyright life from 30 to 50 years, and to prohibit for one year the rental of newly released compact discs. In Japan, people can rent, and presumably copy, CDs. Although CD rental is still legal, consumers must wait one year before they can rent new releases, and it is believed this should lead to increased sales of new recordings.

Computer programs in general are copyrightable, but programming languages themselves are not. Copyright status for algorithms remains ambiguous, however.

There is an institution called the Software Information Center that will register programs much like the US Copyright Office. However, the Software Information Center is not a government agency, and registration is not necessary for copyright protection. Also, because registration should occur within six months of creation of the software, most US firms do not register their software.

The biggest problem with the protection of computer programs seems to lie with the question of who owns any Japanese program derived from the original English version.

For example, if a US software house agrees to let a distributor develop kanji menus for a program, does the copyright for the resulting new program pass to the distributor? This is a crucial question because Japanese courts have a history of narrowly defining what constitutes a copy.