Japan Mulls Reforms to Clarify the Relationship Between Copyright and Cosplay

Rameez Anwar

The Japanese government is currently mulling new changes to the country’s copyright laws that “could change cosplay forever.”[1]  Popular anime streaming website Crunchyroll reports that the new rules are intended to “regulate copyright disputes between cosplayers and IP owners” as a means to promote the country’s “Cool Japan”[2] strategy and to “promote cosplay overseas with anime fans in a ‘positive way.’”[3]

Cosplay, a portmanteau of the words “costume” and “play,” is the act of dressing up in costumes—often homemade and very elaborate—based on characters from popular media, typically animated Japanese TV shows, manga (Japanese comic books and graphic novels), or videogames.[4]   While many cosplayers are amateurs who are simply ardent fans of a particular show or manga, an increasing number of professional cosplayers have turned their erstwhile hobbies into a lucrative career.[5]  High-profile cosplayers typically earn revenue from paid appearances at events like Comic Con or through endorsements on social media or streaming platforms like Twitch, with some professionals earning upwards of six figures annually.[6]  Japan’s most successful professional cosplayer, Enako, can earn more than $90,000 in a single month based on “public appearances, merchandise, photobooks, chat sessions, and endorsements.”[7]

Current copyright law in Japan is ambiguous with no clearly delineated protections for either the cosplayer or the creator who holds the copyright in the character being portrayed.[8]  There appears to be a consensus that as long as the cosplayer is a mere hobbyist who is not seeking any financial remuneration, then no Japanese copyright laws are being broken when such cosplayers attend conventions dressed in the carefully recreated garb of their favorite characters.[9]  However, if a cosplayer takes pictures in costume and sells those images, or if they simply post those pictures to their social media, “there’s an argument to be made that the cosplayer could be breaking Japanese copyright laws.”[10] 

To preclude such confusion, particularly in anticipation of an increase in cosplayer copyright infringement lawsuits, the Japanese government is considering how to clarify and codify existing copyright law, though it has declared that it is not attempting to overhaul extant laws.[11]  The Japanese government appears receptive to cosplayers’ concerns that more stringent laws will stifle cosplayer culture and undermine that prong of the Cool Japan effort.[12]  Rather, the changes will focus on providing clear examples of what constitutes permissible and impermissible use, as well as developing a framework to facilitate contact between cosplayers and the copyright holders, so as to make the process of licensing characters’ costumes more frictionless.[13]   Right now, even if a cosplayer is willing and able to seek such a license, there is no clear path for obtaining such permission, and finding the appropriate rightsholder is often a fruitless endeavor.[14]

While there has been much handwringing and dire pronouncements (note the hyperbolic headline of the Kotaku article cited above), the fact is that the Japanese government seems attentive to cosplayers’ concerns, and there is no use in overreacting to the nascent reform efforts given the seemingly modest ambitions of the reformers.  It’s also worth noting that some US commentators reacted with similarly dire predictions of the end of cosplaying in the wake of the infamous Star Athletica Supreme Court ruling,[15] but those predictions have largely failed to materialize as the professional cosplay industry continues to march onwards and upwards undeterred.


[1] Brian Ashcroft, The Japanese Government Could Change Cosplay Forever, Kotaku, Jan. 25, 2021, https://kotaku.com/the-japanese-government-could-change-cosplay-forever-1846123799.

[2] Cool Japan is a government-sponsored PR campaign intended to promote Japanese soft power abroad. See Kazuaki Nagata, Exporting culture via 'Cool Japan,' The Japan Times, May 15, 2012, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2012/05/15/reference/exporting-culture-via-cool-japan/.

[3] Daryl Harding, Japanese Government is Looking Into New Copyright Regulations for Cosplay, Crunchyroll, Jan. 24, 2021, https://www.crunchyroll.com/en-gb/anime-news/2021/01/24-1/japanese-government-are-looking-into-new-copyright-regulations-for-cosplay.

[4] Japan considers new cosplay copyright rules, World Intellectual Property Review, Jan. 27, 2021, https://www.worldipreview.com/news/japan-considers-new-cosplay-copyright-rules-20973.

[5] Id.

[6] Tom Huddleston Jr., This 29-year-old makes six figures a year as a professional cosplayer, CNBC, Oct. 6, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/06/29-year-old-stella-chuu-makes-six-figures-as-a-professional-cosplayer.html

[7] Ashcroft supra, note 1.

[8] Harding supra, note 3.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Japan to clarify copyright rules for cosplay, The Japan Times, Jan. 31, 2021, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/01/31/national/cosplay-copyright-infringement/.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Katie Scholz, Costumes and Copyrights: Can you afford to wear that?, IP Watchdog, July 18, 2018, https://www.ipwatchdog.com/2018/07/18/costumes-copyrights-can-you-afford-to-wear-that/id=99278/ (Star Athletica stands for the proposition that the unique designs and patterns of a costume or article of clothing (in that case, the articles of clothing in question were cheerleader outfits) can be copyrighted if certain conditions are met).