Will Cosplay be Illegal soon?

Jan 27, 2021Community27 comments

Cosplay is wonderful hobby, that brings joy to people all over the world. In the last few years, the art of dressing up as a fictional character, became more and more mainstream. Some cosplayers (just like myself) even began a career and started building up considerable income. Especially in Japan, one of the most professional cosplayer Enako became extremely successful and made over 90.000$ in a single month. She mainly makes public appearances, sells merchandise, photo books and chat sessions. As a cosplayer, she obviously dresses up as fictional characters and profits from their popularity. The creators of these characters don’t make a cut of this though. However a proposal for a new copyright law in Japan might aim to change chat. Will cosplay become illegal soon?

Some things might in fact change

Matt AltCo-founder AltJapan (altjapan.com) and localizer of Japanese games & manga points out the following on Twitter.

According to Kyodo News, this change shall only inflict cosplayers who make a profit from the use of these characters. However, the website also states that if you “post photos social media sites like Instagram or get rewards at events, there is a possibility of copyright infringement.” Now I used here only google translate and don’t speak Japanese myself. However, I think it’s clear that the idea in general is already problematic.

Enako herself stated on Twitter, that she is dressing up as original characters when she appears on television or appears at paid events. This would avoid any copyright infringement. She also asks for permission when she cosplays characters created by others. Maul Cosplay, well known for his amazing Witcher cosplay, mentioned also many times, that he only brings characters to life with the permission of their creators. Enako also added on Twitter: “I’m not in a position to give an offhanded statement, but for me personally, I truly hope that the non-profit activities of fans won’t be regulated on social-networking sites.”

The current state

Now, is cosplay going to change forever? Will it be soon illegal to dress up as your favorite character at conventions? Do cosplayers have to worry about a copyright claim storm for uploading their photos on social media? And what about those, who make an income with cosplay? What about professional cosplayers, commissioners, prop makers, but also streamers and YouTubers? What about you and me?

First, I think this whole thing gets blown up more than it’s actually worth it. It surely sounds completely ridiculous, but it isn’t actually really a new idea. There are already some companies known for their very harsh treatment against artists who are using their intellectual properly. Disney, Marvel, Nintendo, LucasFilm and Warner Brothers are some of them. While the US law doesn’t allow you to copyright fashion and clothing, fictional characters actually can be protected. Those companies are especially very protective when it comes to mass productions of costume replicas like Thor’s Hammer, Disney Princess outfits and even surely using official names and brands. Disney also fights against companies, that provides costumed characters for parties and events. Obviously. These companies get bookings because kids want to see Elsa and Anna at their birthday. Profit is involved and intellectual characters gets used without a permission.

Where do they draw the line?

Now, cosplay isn’t so easy though. Most cosplayers aren’t known and are successful because of just one single character. Their fame isn’t also the result of just throwing on a store bought costume. Same goes for their income, IF they have an income. People don’t buy a print of a cosplayer, because of the character on the photo. Fans and supporters of those creators follow them for their personality, their hard work, their crafting tutorials, their costume progress and just so much more! It’s not like we profit from a single character, but from our hard work and our love and passion for this art. How could companies argue, if they seriously try to sue some of us?

Other than that, I think you cannot target just costume creators. Cosplay is fanart, but there is so much more around. People are also making money with fan made comics, doujinshis, drawings and stories. Some of them even produce full games and I have no idea what else. If the Japanese government open the option to sue cosplayers, then where are they going to draw the line? Will streaming and lets-plays become illegal as well? There were actually a lot of discussion especially about video games and it’s still a grey area.

It’s free promotion!

I’m surely not a lawyer and also don’t live in the US to understand the US law. Same goes for Japan obviously. However, what I understand is, that fanart is just a huge, massive grey area. Clever companies consider it as free promotion and make a huge effort into featuring outstanding projects and artists. I honestly think that my Zingore and Nergigante Cosplay contributed a lot to make Monster Hunter  more popular inside the cosplay community. At least, it seams like far more people are cosplaying from the game nowadays compared to a few years ago.

Zinoge Armor Monster Hunter Cosplay Costume

Blizzard is also holding a ton of fan art contests at their annual Blizzcon. I’ve already participated in a lot of them. The community managers are doing a great job motivating their fan base and even hire some of the most skilled creators for their own team. Guerilla Games was one of the first big companies who began creating very detailed cosplay reference kits and even included cosplayers for the promotional campaigns of Horizon Zero Dawn . I also get hired by companies to bring their fictional characters to life and promote a specific brand or product. These collaborations are always very rewarding for both sides. In addition it was just awesome to see how much those creators appreciate the work of us fans! It’s a win-win!

Star Wars Battlefront 2 Cosplay Commission

No PR campaign does a better job!

I personally think, that companies benefit a lot from us fans and content creators. We don’t just consume. We don’t just play video games, we don’t just watch anime and we don’t just read comics. Instead we craft, we draw, we write, we create something of value and share our excitement. We fans do the best and most honest promotion for something we are truly passionate about. Our reach is sometimes huge, especially on social media, and our work, the result of our love for a fictional world, a brand or a product, goes viral constantly. No planned PR campaign is able to recreate only a fraction of this massive marketing power. And we are doing all of that for free! Isn’t there something more a company can actually wish for?

Don’t upset your fans!

So, while I think that companies indeed should have the right to stop us from using their characters to make money, I honestly think it can actually be the very worst decision they could make business and community wise. They would attack and hurt their most passionate fanbase. This might result in a massive lost in trust, a lot of disappointment and a gigantic backslash some those companies couldn’t even imagine. They have already done far less to completely destroy their communities trust. Just think about what happens if Blizzard or Riot would ban Twitch streamers and YouTubers from streaming their games – and they clearly make income with their intellectual property! The result would be clearly… let’s say “entertaining”.

Therefore, I honestly don’t think there is any reason to worry right now. Cosplay surely won’t be illegal anytime soon. If you mass produce and sell Disney princess dresses, then yes, I would be very careful. However, if you just enjoy to cosplay, dress up and want to have some fun, you will be fine. Well, and I? I do it full-time and all my income depends on cosplay and this wonderful art. Still, I’m personally not worried at all. However, I’m always ready to grab some popcorn to be entertained.

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  1. I think it should be legal

  2. TRIGGER WARNING: This is probably going to upset people. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

    From my viewpoint, if you are getting paid to wear or make a costume based on another copyright holders intellectual property, you owe copyright holders some type of royalty. So I don’t see this as a bad thing as long as it is aimed only at the professional cosplayers or competitions aimed only one intellectual property.

    Where is will become a problem, will be like it was here in the US back in 90s with Paramount suing Star Trek fan-web sites, specially those that published fanfiction, even if they were not charging anything, as violation of their copyright. So I would be concerned about it becoming a problem when they start targeting those who are not making money and are just doing it for the love it.

  3. When the anime industry is on its last legs as the artists behind the shows are being paid so little that they cannot even afford to make rent and eat.

    They come after the fans of the shows?
    Not a good move.

    If the Japanese government wants to help the industry they need to crack down on the big corps behind the publishers that are literally starving their workforce to line their own pockets.
    the fans are who keep their businesses afloat, directly attacking those who are literally providing free advertisement for their products just for a few extra dollars is bad business.

    its like nintendo demanding a percentage from YT creators who made nintendo related content.

  4. No one saying, that we can’t cosplay! Just saying, that we can’t earn money from cosplay works.
    I think, they need first take care of fan-art artists, that earning money from redraw characters.

    • However, what’s stopping them from coming after hobbyists? and it did say if you post to Instagram. Some hobbyists do this, and I’d actually like to enter a cosplay contest without the unnecessary haggling for money from the “owners”.

  5. Wow, this takes me back…. I remember Anne Rice and her lawyers going after fanfiction writers… There is a reason the old fanfics all opened with a disclaimer…

    • Haha, yes I remember this! xD

  6. I think everyone else has already covered the ‘Cosplaying as a hobby Vs, Cosplaying as a business’ angle… but here’s something no-one has touched on yet:

    I’m talking about the ‘free promotion’ and ‘free PR’ angle. This is incredibly tricky, because someone cosplaying as your character is representing your brand and, currently, copyright holders have zero control on HOW that brand is represented.

    One of the most fun parts of cosplay is the freedom to use your creativity and put your own spin on the costume, but your spin can very easily be seen as damaging to the original brand.

    Think of the sheer number of ‘sexy’ cosplays you see. I’ve seen everything from ‘Sexy Pikachu’ to ‘Sexy Boba Fett’ to ‘Sexy Hermione Granger’… and if your brand is all about being Family Friendly like Harry Potter… well, Warner Bros. probably won’t have a problem with your screen accurate Hogwarts uniform… but the girl walking around in a thong and thigh highs, a skirt that’s basically a belt, with only a Gryffindor scarf covering her breasts? Not exactly the impression they want their brand to have. That Zombie Snow White cosplay might be INCREDIBLY creative and awesome, but probably not the perception Disney want you to have of one of their iconic princesses.

    Basically, this law isn’t just about the money, it’s about maintaining control of your brand.

    So, while it’s true that cosplay CAN be great free promotion and PR, it can also turn people away from your IP because their first impression of your brand is a costume that is pretty much the opposite of what your IP is.

    • I see what you mean. There is definitely a fine line between running around as an obvious fan-art and something looking very legitimate – almost official. I think it also depends a lot on where it is presented. Cons have rules for how revealing costumes can be and if that event is family friendly. On the internet it’s obviously not so easy.

    • I actually did already cover this in my comment just below yours. It’s called the “right of integrity” clause.

  7. From a copyright law point of view they are opening a massive can of worms with a law like this. Before I begin, I have a Masters in Information and Library Studies and we covered copyright law when during the Information Law part of the course. We obviously went into much more detail, but some of the very basic tenents of copyright law are that copyright has been breached if a company loses money or the integrity of the brand is breached. That means for an infringement to take place the company needs to prove that that they have lost a considerable amount of income. Regarding integrity they need to prove that their work has been used in a way that “amounts to a distortion or mutilation of the work” and/or modifications have caused harm to the company’s reputation.

    So let us unpack that in terms of cosplay:

    1) How does cosplay cost them money?

    Although some companies do employ professional cosplayers for events to advertise new products cosplayers do not have a comparable service. Do we consider them selling photos of their own costumes as a risk to a company’s income? Again, are they a comparable product? The only thing I would perhaps consider comparable are costumes sold by companies, however, they are usually for children or halloween and are no where near the level of quality or detail created by cosplayers. As pointed out by Kamui fictional characters are not included under fashion and clothing copyright laws at the moment.

    2) Again, as Kamui discusses not all cosplayers even make money from cosplaying which means they’re not infringing on copyright law in the first place. Everything they do comes under the fair usage clause of copyright law. Unless, as stated above, a company can prove that they are losing income and then it becomes an infringement of fair use.

    3) If they are going to push for this law to be implemented I think that it is more likely that they will be aiming for the “right of integrity” clause of copyright law; modifications to the work and/or harm caused to the company’s reputation. At the moment they have zero control over what cosplayers do, and how they choose to recreate characters through their cosplays. I don’t know what the political situation is like in Japan, however, I would not be surprised if a strict conservative group is behind this law.

    As for what I said about a can of worms; if a law like this gets passed for cosplay it opens the door for similar laws for any type of fan creation. I honestly think that if that happens many franchises will be shooting themselves in the foot because fan creations and content creators help advertise their products so much better than their own promotion teams – it’s why company’s reach out to cosplayers and involve them because they recognise their value.

    Anyway, I hope some of that was useful :D

    • This is incredibly useful, thank you.

      I’m not sure it will apply directly in Japanese law, and especially not to Chinese copyright law – where they produce many of the costumes which arguably do more harm to Japanese creators than dedicated cosplayers who make their own do, but I suspect that’s their main target.

      Good to see them considering this though because – as a photographer – it’s frustrating to see people disrespecting an original artist/creator by manipulating what they’ve made beyond all bounds of parody or good taste. I’m not opposed to cosplay or anything like that, just people taking established characters or IPs and retconning them to fit their narrative and then monetizing it, or producing shoddy, off-brand junk and marketing it by targeting the original creation, for example.

      Just because there’s no law against it doesn’t mean it’s OK; if you can’t regulate yourselves, you invite others from outside to do so.

  8. There are multiple issues going on here so it’s a lot to unpack. Replica prop/costume makers have been dealing with this for many, many years. There are two issues with an original creator’s (or company’s) intellectual property- copyright and trademark. With trademark infringement (character names, logos, etc) a company has to rigorously defend their trademark or it can be used against them in court- legal precedent is very important. With copyright the general situation in the U.S. is that you are free to make replicas for your own personal use but it is illegal to sell any duplicates of original work. The kicker is that any company can sue at any time- they don’t have to show that you made a profit from it, only that you duplicated and distributed their work. I seriously doubt that cosplay will become illegal or discouraged anytime in the future as the fan base is far too important. I would however be very careful if you decided to setup shop to produce likenesses of any popular characters or specific items that belong to other artists/companies.

  9. I feel like this only makes sense in cases where the cosplayer is making money directly from dressing up as a copyrighted character.
    Even then, does it depend on how close they are visually to the character?

  10. The jap Gov should sue the people who dont ask for permission to use said characters for profit and don’t pay. That’s not fair to the creator who made said character. Using ones property without payment is not ok cause what taxes do they really pay after said “cosplay career” takes off.but I think the line is drawn when it comes to parodies thats why they don’t get copyright striked or have issues cause they are usually satires of the original or have original stories like dragon ball af (only one I could think off atm) or the what if Naruto stories. All in all tho I don’t think the broader scope of cosplay I dont think it would be illegal more so of it actually becoming a documented profession for legal purposeses which would be a good idea for cosplayers and official content creators as it would give them a way to secure income and in theory would protect them from copyright cause they would have to go directly to said company to ask for permission

  11. How would the law cover a copyright if the costume was not exactly the same though? For example a Steampunk version of Darth Vader or Batman? You only have to change even small things like colours or some detail and it surely wouldn’t be technically breach of copyright. Can’t see the creators of the characters going after the fan population, only people that make enormous amount s of money.

  12. As we in the public have had difficulty concerning Disney characters and songs from Disney as well. My children went to private school and they had a musical presentation where they were going to use one of their songs and she sought permission from California. It took more than a year to get it approved after giving them Who we were which was a Christian school and we were not charging for the event. It still took a long time and many papers to sign. As a balloon artist I know that many of my mentors do not use the name Mickey Mouse and the like reasons mentioned here. Even though that you are making money the characters you copy but you’re also helping promote the entertainment industry by copying the characters. How much money you actually make is irrelevant to me the time and effort outside of the cost of materials it takes they might be more understanding but what do I know.

  13. In short, I agree it is a bad idea for a “law”. But as much as I respect Kamui, please do not use the word “Free promotion”. Otherwise, you would not want payment for visiting certain cons, expos, and all right? There must be a middle ground in it. You are making money on their creation. You are investing money to make it, so it is natural that if they want your time they must pay for you. It is just business. Not a “Free promotion”… ♥

    But in general, I agree on it, it is bull*hit idea for a law.

    • Well, convention invitation have nothing to do with the issue. At least not in my case. If a certain convention wants be me to wear a specific costume and come as a specific character, then yes. But I’m not getting invited because of my costume choices, but because I run panels judge costume competitions and do fan meetings. I choose my costumes randomly just to wear anything. These days I also get invited for online events and don’t wear any costumes at all actually! :)

      • As I said Svetlana, it is nothing against you, personally, I really like your work, respect you as a crafter, because you can make I would say anything, but as I said it is business… I don’t agree it should be made a “Law” but I say “they need to find a middle ground”

        But how did you build up such a reputation and financial support? Based on their designs and games they worked so hard. It is the same as if I would make a really great music cover on a song from Iron Maiden and make a fortune on it and they would just watch me how I used their song and making a lot of cash on it. This same principle is actually even in the photography field these days, photographers stealing ideas from the digital artist and making it “their own” and they are getting credits for their work and even money… So as I said there must be a middle ground, but I don’t agree with “Law” as a middle ground… the law is just stupidity that would angry people even more and encourage them to do it… it is a complicated matter and both sides have their rights and also fails…

  14. I think if they really do it, it would be best to draw a line with the income someone makes alone through cosplay. For example: everyone making more than 30.000€ a year will need a permission to cosplay or needs to pay for using their characters. With this way at least small entrepreneurs wouldn’t be affected cause not all cosplayers get famous with their cosplay. It can be compared with the German law for all small entrepreneurs, as long as you are under 10.000€ per year you do not need to pay taxes, but you have to prove it. This law was made to help small businesses grow.

    There is so much grey area. They could also do a license for very small money, like 2€ or so, people would buy it and the license holder would make huge money out of it.

    There are many ways this could be done. I can understand their thinking, if I created something many people like and some fans do their job so well that they make so much money out of my idea, I would be pissed too and I understand that the people of Warner & co.don’t want to see exact 1:1 replicas of their ideas. I can remember one instance where they shut down a prop maker who made HP school books after his work got so good that you couldn’t see a difference to the original movie props. They gave her a choice to either chance it that much, that it doesn’t resemble a HP book anymore or to completely stop.

    But I think there really needs to be something done, it could be best for all of us cause you wouldn’t need to worry about fines cause now you are doing it with permission. I am a prop maker myself and I kind of don’t like it that we prop makers get fined for copying something out of a game/movie but cosplayers get away with it.

  15. I don’t think cosplay as a hobby nor the ones that make profit will be “illegal.” I’m Japanese and I’ve read the article but to be honest there is not enough information to go off of. I am thinking the “Social media post” part is just a speculation made by the author of the article, and the government may only intend to regulate ones that are actually interrupting the original artists. (Like the mass produced stolen art/costume stuff on Amazon, etc)
    Even if you are a potential candidate for being accused of making profit out of characters that belongs to others, they will merely ask you to pay a fee. They should not be able to stop you from doing cosplay of their character because that’s a part of human rights and freedom of expression. If this is the case, I personally feel that’s normal, because even if there’s other parts of your originality in that work of art, part of it does belong to the original designers of the character, and if there’s a way to pay respect to the original creators, then that should be done, and as long as the fee or whatever is given to the original creator, they would be able to appreciate fan art better. We are all creators who love their original work after all:)

  16. As much as I agree with many points and also a big fan…I am surprised it has taken this long for these companies to notice the cosplau world has been making money of of other artists creations. Think about this… What if someone stole your art to make money ? This happens quite a lot from companies like Alibaba/Aliexpress. They often steal other artists work and make money from it. So, I am kind of torn about cosplayers showing up to do autograph signings and making merchandise that is copyright. At least make original merchandise ya know? Yes, it is free promotion….but ask yourself how you feel when someone wants you to do work for “exposure”.

  17. I don’t think your average cosplayer has anything to worry about if the law changes. Profiting from someone else’s intellectual property is already protected by copyright laws. If you don’t profit from dressing up as your favourite Anime or game character then the companies won’t be interested in you. If you do then they might. Also, content creators are protected by Fair Use which means if you use someone’s Intellectual Property for critique or satirical purposes you are free to do so. There are so many YouTube channels and fan fiction sites etc. that simply show game run throughs or clips with no attempts to comment on them, instead just using them as an easy and lazy way of making money.
    However, one thing to consider is the individual creator of a character. Many of them will make very little money from their creation with the rights being owned by the company they work for.
    Steve Ditko and Bill Finger, for example, absolutely didn’t get rich from Spider-Man and Batman respectively and they are two of the most iconic characters ever.
    The basic rule of thumb if you want to profit from using someone else’s stuff, both professionally and ethically, is to ask permission first.
    Anyhoo, i’m not a cosplayer but love your stuff. I make terrain and props for tabletop games and LARP and you and your fellow cosplay creators have taught me a lot. And having introduced me to the wonders of EVA, saved me a lot of money 👍.
    Keep up the good work.

  18. 3 years ago, Star Trek (CBS) went after fan films because they had better reactions than their new Discovery show. And, a fan film raised $1 million dollars. Needles to say, it was a sh*t show. Everyone called CBS greedy spiteful people, and it created a backlash against their new series. In the end, rules were made that just angered fans and pushed content creators away. Nobody won and fans were sad. It’s still a sore subject for content creators, and CBS gained nothing but anger. Cautionary tale. Look it up.

  19. This is a two-bladed sword as we say in the REPUBLIC of Hungary:

    First of all, the claim from the copyright beholders are rightful: they don’t get any shares from a famous cosplayer while he/she receives income from an event. This is yes a bit unfair to the rightful owners of the character.
    However, the effects of this proposed law may totally devastating: the cosplayers will abandon their passion to avoid pay fines, or appear to court. The subculture will die out under the pressure of the greedy companies.

    You’ve mentioned: it may considered as a PR activity from a third party personel. Well… it depends what the company’s marketing strategy is. If they are likely to use the cosplayer for their merchandise purposes, then it’s fine: they’ll sign a contract. But if they don’t want their products to be advertised this way, then there’s no excuse. Copyright fees have to be paid.

    May the Supreme Court of The Haague judge this lawsuit.

  20. I think they will start to massively complicate everything to pass a law like this in Japan, having more serious problems ahem (αυτοκτονία , niedrige Geburtenrate) sorry for that.

    Anyway, here in Paraguay and I believe that in more than one place in the world there are events where we pay so that they can bring a guest cosplayer, either to serve as a jury or to share a moment with their fans.

    Maybe they think that there are many who earn a lot of money with cosplay because in their country it is so I think that more than one had economic problems when making an armor or a cosplay in whatever material.
    carton, worbla, fabric etc.

    Hopefully this does not affect the community so badly and above all it does not extinguish the passion that we all have for bringing to life a character we love so much, we cannot be waiting for Blizzard or Capcom to bring us a character when one wishes to embody it. .
    and I hope they don’t look for me for making the first Rathalos armor in my country XD


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