I mean, seriously. Bleach?

Posted by on March 3rd, 2010 at 4:48 PM

Manga fans are pissed about some guy copying panels from Bleach for his comic, and rightly so.  He could have at least picked a manga with an interesting art style, like One Piece, maybe.  And he could have tried not lifting recognizable images from one of the most popular comics in the world.  Personally, I’m less concerned about the sanctity of Tite Kubo’s intellectual property rights than I am insulted that somebody thought he could pull off a graft this transparent.  Bleach?  Really?

Beyond that, the theft is hardly surprising.  Hell, a couple of days after the Bleach thing hit, Hot Topic got caught selling yet another T-shirt with a copyright-infringing design, in this case a lamely altered Vera Brosgol illustration.  (The original, adorable illustration shows two girls kissing; the T-shirt changed one of the girls to a boy, thus defining both laziness and chickenshititude in a single violation.)  This sort of thing happens constantly in the T-shirt business, as textile design is a poorly-overseen field with vague trademark and fair use laws.  It’s rarer to see wholesale lifting of comic-book art for other comic books, but the swipe file is a time-honored tradition.  It’s just that most swipers are smart enough to pick sufficiently obscure swipees.  Lifting stuff off a webcomic or a freelance illustrator’s portfolio is a lot safer than tracing characters from friggin’ Bleach.

There’s been some interesting online debate about whether the Bleach swipes connect in any meaningful way to otaku culture.  In Japan, unauthorized fanart and fancomics are a huge part of the manga scene, to the point that the largest comic convention in Japan–the largest comic convention in the world–is devoted entirely to fancomics.  (Okay, fancomics and porn.)  As anyone who’s ever had to sort art-school applications  can tell you, however, Western culture has no dearth of would-be artists who either don’t know that drawing isn’t tracing, or don’t care.

The difference between the Japanese comics industry’s laid-back attitude to fan “tributes” and the American comics industry’s more litigious reaction is legal, not cultural.  Japanese copyright law provides more leeway for unauthorized fan artwork; if a fan crosses the standard boundaries, publishers come down hard.  In American copyright law, the burden of protecting copyright rests on the copyright holder, forcing the owners of intellectual property to sue, or at least threaten to sue, anyone they catch copying their work.  If they don’t, they risk permanently weakening their rights.

In essence, under American copyright law, the only people who can retain the rights to a valuable piece of intellectual property are those who can afford lawyers to defend it.  If  you’re sufficiently ballsy and have a better lawyer than the real creator, a lot of the time you can just declare his or her artwork “yours” and get away with it.  In the comics business, the precedent stretches back at least to the Katzenjammer Kids and Batman.

Today, there are guys who make millions this way, combing the Internet and other sources for artwork they can alter ever-so-slightly and plaster on merchandise and gift books.  Todd Goldman, who hires people to lift designs off the Internet for him, stirred up nerd rage in 2007 for selling a series of paintings copying a panel by webcartoonist Dave Kelly.  After an online tussle, Kelly agreed to drop his lawsuit against Goldman in exchange for the profits from Goldman’s paintings.  At least Roy Lichtenstein’s old blow-ups of old romance comics could be interpreted as making an original aesthetic statement about the mechanical processes behind mass-produced art; when Goldman exactly copies a cartoon animal saying, “Dear God, please make everyone die,” it’s hard to believe he’s trying to say anything beyond, “Please give me $10,000, drunkest person at my gallery opening.”

Rob Reger, “creator” (if it were ever appropriate to put extra scare quotes around a word, this would be the time) of Emily the Strange, is another of the big success stories.  He’s built a multi-million-dollar empire, including a series of comic books (that’s right, I’m keeping this on topic) on a single illustration lifted directly from the awesome Nate the Great children’s books–and when the real creators started asking stores not to carry Emily the Strange merchandise, Reger sued them.  Balls.  That’s how you get ahead in this business.

When their thefts started attracting undue publicity, Goldman and Reger had the same defense: supposedly they didn’t know the images were stolen, because they don’t even do their own swiping.  They have people for that.  Reger’s story has changed a couple of times, but seems to be that he paid a guy to lift a skateboard design from another guy who turned out to have lifted it from Nate the Great.  At this point, people, wouldn’t it have been easier to just draw your own damn goth girl?

The more I follow the swiping culture, the more it fascinates me.  It’s a fantasy world where Being An Artist is completely divorced from producing art.  You get to make millions, do book tours, get interviewed by magazines, and be renowned for your creativity without ever having to go through the tedious process of thinking up ideas and putting them on paper.  Isn’t that living the dream?  I mean, drawing Bleach is probably a lot of work.

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10 Responses to “I mean, seriously. Bleach?”

  1. Noah Berlatsky says:

    You can sort of see where the swipers are coming from, though. I mean, obviously these are people with a real talent for marketing themselves. It seems unfair to let all that talent go to waste just because they don’t actually have even minimal creative abilities.

  2. […] Garrity gets us off to a good start with her take on Nick Simmons’s “homage” to Bleach, at The Comics Journal. Simon Jones rounds […]

  3. pallas says:

    “The difference between the Japanese comics industry’s laid-back attitude to fan “tributes” and the American comics industry’s more litigious reaction is legal, not cultural. Japanese copyright law provides more leeway for unauthorized fan artwork; if a fan crosses the standard boundaries, publishers come down hard. In American copyright law, the burden of protecting copyright rests on the copyright holder, forcing the owners of intellectual property to sue, or at least threaten to sue, anyone they catch copying their work. If they don’t, they risk permanently weakening their rights.”

    There’s an obligation to enforce a trademark, but not copyright. You don’t lose your copyright if you don’t sue everyone.

    Plus, what’s your source for the idea that the difference in copyright enforcement in Japan is legal, not cultural? I don’t know the details of Japanese copyright law, but I do know Japan has far less lawyers per capita than America.

    • Shay Guy says:

      Yeah, I remember Free Culture said the law was pretty similar there, and the main difference, aside from net benefit to the ecosystem, was the lack of lawyers.

      Also, the comparison between the countries’ laws seems off, like they were from two separate comparisons accidentally put together. The first sentence (Japan) doesn’t seem to have much to do with the second (America); theoretically, they could even be referring to the same country. That said, the “right to hire a lawyer” thing is important, especially where fair use is involved.

  4. […] Garrity gets us off to a good start with her take on Nick Simmons’s “homage” to Bleach, at The Comics Journal. Simon Jones rounds […]

  5. hymie says:

    Let’s think about Emily the Strange, then. Suppose that the assertion is true, that one person has built a multi-million dollar commercial undertaking based on a single drawing created by another person. What does that mean? Clearly, the original artist has not built such an enterprise, just a drawing. How much does the original artist deserve to profit from the enterprise built by someone else? How much would the enterprise builder have to pay for a work-for-hire based on the loose description “strange little goth girl”?

    This doesn’t meant that swiping is right, but I think it means that the original artist isn’t entitled to much of the tainted fruit either.

  6. […] on pääasiassa kulttuurista eikä lainsäädännöstä johtuva, toisin kuin Shaenon K. Garrity täällä aihetta sivuten kirjoittaa. Itse asiassa japanilaiset ovat oikeusrikkomuksista jopa vielä […]

  7. […] work, said James Robinson in the backup prose section of the sixth iss… 3 Tweets I mean, seriously. Bleach? « The Comics Journal The Comics Journal is a magazine that covers the comics medium from an arts-first perspective, […]

  8. […] A rousing defense of scanlations, especially when it gets the industry to care more about accuracy. (This is one of the discussion threads spinning off of the ongoing plagiarism-of-Bleach scandal.) […]

  9. Shay Guy says:

    It’s a fantasy world where Being An Artist is completely divorced from producing art. You get to make millions, do book tours, get interviewed by magazines, and be renowned for your creativity without ever having to go through the tedious process of thinking up ideas and putting them on paper.

    See, my Being An Artist fantasy has more to do with self-respect — “I’m creative,” “I’m skilled,” “I’m a hard worker,” “I’m diligent,” “I’m not afraid of criticism,” “I’m making things people enjoy,” and maybe even “I’m earning good money.” It’s a subset of the larger fantasy of Being Respectable. Why would I want to make things worse by adding plagiarism to my conscience?