Digitising books into e-books stirs copyright pot in Japan

As the digital age grows more and more complicated, in terms of copyright law and copyright theft, some Japanese companies are “cooking their own meals” in a way that some book publishers can’t quite digest.

A few enterprising firms are setting up shop to digitise selected paper books into e-books for individual customers. But lawyers for the Japan Book Publishers Association (JBPA) say the practice violates Japanese Copyright Law.


This is how it happens, according to a recent report in the Japanese-language Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. The firms remove the spines of books, scan the pages for transfer to e-readers and the money is coming in. A new business blueprint is born. In Japanese, the practice is called “jisui” “(cooking your own meals”).

It is legal for Japanese to digitise their own books for their own use, according to sources, but to do it for paying customers is a violation of the Copyright Law of Japan. In order to get out of the tight corner they find themselves in, and cook the meals properly, the half-dozen companies providing the”jisui” service argue they are not digitising books for commercial use.

Reproduction of books for private use is allowed under the Copyright Law of Japan, but not for other people’s use, especially paying customers. And there’s the rub.

According to the Yomiuri, which has a circulation of 10 million readers in a country of 125 million people, there are more than 10 companies currently taking orders for digitising books, which is labor-intensive and time-consuming.

The companies charge from several tens of yen to several hundreds of yen per book. It’s not small change.

The jisui process is simple: After digitising a book, the jisui firms return the data to customers on a DVD or via the internet, and clients then transfer the data to an e-reader. Done deal. Everyone’s happy. Except the JBPA.

The new business idea is catching on, too. One company that started digitising books in July received orders for 10,000 books in August, and the number is likely to reach 15,000 in October.

“[The operation of this business] might be in a gray zone in terms of copyright violation,” the company’s PR office told a Yomiuri reporter last week. “But we think there’s no problem regarding copyrights since we just do this on behalf of individuals.”

The JBPA does not plan to take all this sitting down. First up is a plan to issue a warning against such business practices. Any reproduction other than copying books for private use will be considered illegal, the JBPA insists.

So what does Japan’s legal community think of all “jisui” business? One lawyer who specialises in Japanese copyright law is of the opinion that “while reproduction for private use can be carried out by the individual who will use the e-book, it is not legal for a third party to do it for payment.”

Case closed? Hardly. This is just the beginning of the “jisui wars” set to rock Tokyo’s publishing juggernaut in coming years.