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YouTuber gets hit with copyright claims, but is it Toei who’s out of line?

Japanese entertainment companies have long held a skeptical — if not downright hostile — view of the internet. This has led to a lot of disgruntled anime and J-pop fans, but these companies’ strict approach to copyright and content blocks have rarely led to any real outrage.

However, last week Toei Animation, the company behind anime hits such as “Dragonball,” “One Piece” and “Sailor Moon,” found itself in the middle of a rather large backlash after it levied a slew of copyright claims against YouTuber Mark Fitzpatrick.

Better known as TotallyNotMark, Fitzpatrick uploads a wide variety of content related to Japanese animation, most notably in-depth reviews of series such as “Dragonball Z.” Backed by a team helping create these videos, Fitzpatrick has amassed a strong following.

In a now deleted video shared last week (but still viewable via dozens of clips reacting to it), an emotional Fitzpatrick faces the camera to share news that Toei Animation filed claims on 150 of his videos that were related to “Dragonball” and “One Piece,” resulting in all of them being removed from YouTube. “That equates to almost three years worth of work,” he says.

While he can appeal these moves, Fitzpatrick reminds the viewer that YouTube’s own rules only allow for one video to be reviewed at a time. “I would need to follow this process for over 37 years,” he says, if he wanted to get through every claim.

TotallyNotMark’s story quickly went viral. While Toei has apparently issued similar strikes in the past, none were as crippling as the ones directed at Fitzpatrick’s channel. Anime YouTubers like The Anime Man expressed disappointment and anger over the company’s actions, and it soon reached other parts of YouTube not directly affiliated with anime. Prominent creators such as PewDiePie and Philip DeFranco commented on the situation, all firmly on the side of the creator and aghast at Toei’s maneuvers.

The consensus? Toei was acting against its own interests by filing copyright claims against a channel that effectively gives them free publicity. From a Japanese perspective, however, the move isn’t quite as surprising. As Kotaku writer and Japan Times contributor Brian Ashcraft points out, Japanese copyright law lacks the general fair use provision found in the United States. And though YouTube acknowledges the concept in relation to content on its platform, it is quick to point out that “When you use someone else’s copyrighted work, there’s no guarantee that you’re protected under fair use.”

Coupled with Japanese entertainment’s long-held jitters over the internet, it’s not surprising that Toei would go after a creator using images from its series — entertainment companies here are used to flexing copyright power, and aren’t afraid to do so at home or internationally.

Having said that, the moment marks a sort of crossroads for the industry at large — especially those like Toei that harbor global ambitions. Japanese law might be on their side, but as YouTube’s own copyright guide outlines, it’s up to the holder to decide whether to file a claim or not. Many choose not to, as young viewers are increasingly on YouTube, not in theaters or flipping through TV channels. Instead, most companies find some alternative way of collecting revenue from a video featuring their content.

Entertainment in the social media age thrives on fandom, and the blurred line between creator and consumer. Once one-sided, now a supporter of a franchise or artist or game can devote themselves to creating content celebrating their favorite offering. Toei might not see it this way, and to crack down on his channel might be legally just, but it’s out of step with the digital ecosystem.

Japanese entertainment companies need to decide whether they want to embrace this reality, or wall themselves off from it. In 2021, many are choosing to relax into the internet — and the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated their thinking on the issue.

Kadokawa launched a subsidiary called GeeXPlus connecting anime YouTubers with Japanese brands, while the music industry has opened up to letting songs float in the digital ether of streaming. In just the past month, that helped older songs from Taeko Onuki and Jun Togawa become surprise memes on TikTok, with the former crashing Spotify’s Viral charts as a result.

Toei’s move seems to indicate the company is a bit old-fashioned in terms of the direction Japan is headed, a prominent player putting its foot down at the worst possible time. Some YouTubers are now talking about boycotts. While it doesn’t look like “Dragonball” is going to get canceled anytime soon, the whole affair seems like an own goal in a market where everything from Netflix to Disney to TikTok is vying for our limited attention.

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