Tokyopox

May 29, 2008

I want join the chorus with a pox on the Tokyopop contracts for their “Shining Stars” program, which were issued in “hey dude” language from a company founded by a lawyer.

The “hey dude” language, utterly disingenuous from a corporation, reminds that Tokyopop is essentially a marketing firm: it exists, and has been successful, as an importer of a popular culture wholly created and owned by other people. Its unique contribution has been spin. For instance, when Japanese creators uninterested in other countries’ customs refused to flip their art, Tokyopop released it unflipped and spun it (quite successfully) as “authentic.” No matter one’s flipping preference, it is clear that Tokyopop’s approach stemmed from no principled commitment to authenticity. That matters if you’re interested in a business relationship with the company.

Then recall what Stu Levy, Tokyopop’s founder and CEO, said in Tom McLean’s Bags & Boards interview for Variety:

I was realizing at the time, well we’ve proven our name as Tokyopop, that we can market and we can distribute. But a lot of people, especially in Japan, were treating us like we were a distributor, maybe even like we were an agent.

So I decided that, yeah, it’s important for us to prove that not only can we work with finished product and adapt it, but we can work with creative people and we can express ourselves creatively as well and become more of a studio. … We think we understand the secrets of the success of Japanese manga, and why it resonates worldwide, so let’s take a stab at it.

To put it differently, and simply, if Tokyopop only licenses, packages and redistributes Japanese-owned goods, then it has no company assests. If it loses a few of its top licenses, it could sink the company. The logical step is to own properties, so that their work building the company isn’t wasted. They have already taken this step with OEL manga, in a co-ownership arrangement. Whether these manga are “authentic” or not has given way to the “manga lifestyle,” Levy’s phrase, with the implication that this lifestyle is not (owned by) Japanese.

A paragraph later in that interview, Levy talks about copyright.

…my personal view on how to approach copyright is I really tend to lean towards opening it up and embracing fans expressing themselves creatively with [intellectual property] that other people have created.

This is in the context of fan-made tributes, mash-ups, and dojinshi, and my pointing it out is perhaps unfair. But I would hope that the creators of characters and stories (“intellectual properties”) might have the same consideration as fans and pirates.

Tokyopop does promise co-ownership, vaguely. However, their goal is clearly the development of related properties, like film and television. It brings to mind “Hollywood deals,” “Hollywood contracts,” all shorthand for getting ripped off. I fully admit the bizarre, sleazy Americana of the place and the industry, but at least they have SAG, DGA, WGA, and other assorted unions that ensure things like residuals and health care. Yes, they are very hard to get into, and no, just because you can get SAG rates doesn’t mean you’ll work every day, or even any day, but at least there is a strong institution with leverage in that industry.

Comics creators have no similar institution protecting them. They also don’t have the same barriers of entry into their field. Creating a movie requires piles of money and the cooperation of talented, unionized craftspeople. Comics require pen and paper. The tradeoff in making a movie is that you don’t own it, but it gets made, and you get paid (usually). The tradeoff in comics, in the case of this Tokyopop deal, is a lot less clear. What do you get, their distribution might? From a company who has produced exactly zero breakout hits in OEL manga? In order to consider signing away the rights, I would hope they would offer a hell of a lot more than they are.

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The Hollywood comparison reminds me that Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton both owned and had creative control of their movies (until Keaton signed with MGM and lost both). So everyone in the Bay Area please please please check out the San Francisco Silent Film Festival coming up in July. I wish I could be there to watch The Unknown, The Man Who Laughs, and even– HER WILD OAT!

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Also: if anyone has had good or bad experiences with Tokyopop or other OEL manga publishers, on or off the record, please drop me a line. I’m working on an article that is leaning in that direction, and I’d like to hear from you.

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EDIT: At first glance, it brought to mind the pay-to-play reading fees for contests in literary journals. Except that economics says these journals can’t afford contests without entry fees, as their readership fits in a pickup truck. By contrast, Shining Stars looks like trawling for marketable properties with a very wide net by charging the people who just aren’t good enough.

I misread and then misrepresented this part of the contract about the “pilot fee,” for which I apologize; it is evidence of my non-legal mind and perhaps the fact that “hey dude” is actually just as confusing as legalese.  Fortunately for my credibility, it was not my main argument.

I would still like to hear from OEL manga creators (and publishers) about their experiences.  For the record, it is not a Michael Dean-esque work of investigative reporting; I’m a critic, not a journalist. Normally I just read a bunch of books in context and react; in writing for the first time in several years on the English-language manga industry, it is becoming clear that the context of English manga centers on creators’ rights and licensing.

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