016 Morality of expression and the morals of its creator

Steal someone’s money and you will be accused of a crime. Stealing something, even if it is a piece of gum, a crime is still a crime. In case the stolen goods is a novel or a song, depending on the contents, the act may be construed as plagiarism and the culprit may be tried under the law. If you steal someone else’s idea, from the judicial viewpoint, “copyright protection does not extend to any idea” and thus, it becomes difficult to prove the illegality of the act. This much I learned from a lawyer. The same could be said of works of design. Even if the design highly resembles another, there will be no criminal accusation. The problem regarding the emblem for the Olympic Games took off into another direction when the art director who created the first place plan—which was ultimately withdrawn—was put on the spot for some goods he had designed for a beverage manufacturer’s promotional campaign. There were allegations that he had used and recreated multiple images and ideas without obtaining permission from their creators. The legality of his actions were disputed, but even if the claims are substantiated he would not be brought to justice in a courtroom. However, I cannot help feeling that there is no difference between the two acts: using an image without obtaining permission and stealing a piece of gum.

The said art director may not have been put on trial by a public office, but he was certainly tried by the public. We are talking about a major event of national scale, the Games were coming back to Tokyo after half a century, and it was drawing much attention from the Japanese people. It was anonymous citizens, equipped with special insight, skills and intuition, who managed to conduct a detailed sweep in a short period of time. Almost immediately they were able to point out the emblem design’s similarities with existing work; specific grounds and evidence were duly presented, and allegations were made against the provenance of the design’s ideas and its presentation. If it were not for the investigative acumen of the talented general public, the emblem for the Olympic Games that won first place may have never been withdrawn. And to think that all this happened within the limited time span of about a month, I could not help being impressed by the spirit of gung-ho and the speed to take action. It was almost unbelievable. Maybe it was an inadvertent slip, not intentional—but judging from the results, the method the art director took was clearly unfair, make no mistake. For a moment I thought we may have found a new research methodology invented by citizens that cab objectively check and confirm suspicions, what the central players refuse to admit. However this seemingly efficient and effective method is not all about advantages. The overwhelmingly powerful internet, the all-encompassing influence and destructive force manages to endanger not only the person at the center of the dispute, but the family and related parties, creating a situation that infringes their human rights—damaging reputations and possibly leading to false accusations.

The development of the computer gave birth to something devoid of physical substance which we call software, as opposed to what has physical substance which is called hardware. These are the words we use in order to understand the current state of things. Design development involves both sides, the software and the hardware. If we consider design from this viewpoint, we can see that ideas belong in the realm of software. The visualizations, the creations, the actual forms of expression, then belong in the realm of hardware. Composite elements of different characters are thus strung together and entwined to build a design. If we take this vantage point, we can clearly imagine the difficulty involved in proving and solving copyright infringement of design.

When we come across a completely new issue with no precedent, we have no proven criteria to go by. And then we are also challenged by technology that is growing in leaps and bounds. Every year brings a new set of infrastructure. Our times are zipping ahead, bringing new changes one after another. Even though we need to amend laws, which require discussion, verification, decision and implementation—the reality is, we lack awareness and are not yet up to speed. Furthermore, we are talking about a phenomenon with compound elements that exist in a physical realm of physics, yet manages to intrude into the non-physical arena by containing non-physical aspects. It is difficult for the mind to realistically grasp this image. That is why, I think, it is so difficult for us to establish a set of criteria for decision making. For example, if our body is hurt by an act of physical violence, we can recognize the damage as a physical issue. But what if the act of violence is committed by words? It is not easy to acknowledge damage that is caused by violence that cannot be seen by the eye. In the same way, you don’t have to be a lawyer to see the difficulty of the task in making a decision on copyright infringement issues related to matters of design which incorporate both physical and non-physical characteristics. That said, just because it is difficult should we just leave it at that, and forget about establishing a set of criteria to go by?

As can be seen, once we step into the non-physical realm, things definitely become more difficult to acknowledge and understand. In addition, if we are to go even further and tackle “plagiarism of images” which have the shading of the abstract, analysis becomes even more difficult. It becomes almost impossible to pinpoint the illegality of the matter and validate the findings. But there is one thing that can be truthfully said: “stealing images” jeopardizes the very dignity of creativity; it signifies a disrespect towards the creation; and lastly, it disrespects the original creator.

Now let me study the issue from a slightly different perspective. For example, let us say that someone goes and experiences a certain exhibition. The iconographic images are scanned by the viewer as visual information, encrypted into his memory, and becomes stocked in the person’s image archive database as experienced information. Let us say that after a few years’ time the person forgets where the information originally came from; the quality of the original experienced information has deteriorated, only parts of the iconographic imagery and visual images remain, stocked subconsciously in the database. If such bits and pieces are drawn from the personal database, not by intent, but by the unconscious mind or by the subliminal mind; and what if they are expressed as if they were the person’s own ideas? This is going to become an extremely tricky problem. For one thing, the memory of the origin of the idea is gone, but undeniably the idea was influenced by someone else. Yet the use of the image is not a conscious, intentional act—thus there is no guilty feeling, no remorse attached. So people who intend to work in the field of mass communication and people who are already established as professionals must be sure to take the greatest care, consciously and with a definite will, to brace themselves against direct influence from others. Specifically, I think you need a personal daily regimen to train and heighten your own objectivity. If you are prone to be affected and influenced by others, even if you devote your whole life, as a unit of time, it won’t be enough to establish your “individuality”. You will not only hurt yourself, but you will always be infringing on other people’s rights and hurting them—inviting an unfortunate situation for all parties concerned.

It takes great energy to create something out of nothing. The leap from 0 to 1 is unfathomable. I always feel that it is a sacred, almost mythical moment. Therefore, I am always reminding myself that I must not send out something that is unwanted and needless. In that sense I am always leery and careful. As a creator, never would I allow myself to infringe the world of creativity of another person. Whether intentional or not, once you express something with your own hands, you take whole responsibility. We live in such times where every bit of information around the world is connected by networks. Everything exists in plain visibility. Things exist in a delicate balance, creating its own chaos, maintaining a precarious order of things. Creators must be mentally prepared in pursuing their paths of expression. We should keep on reminding ourselves that something similar is bound to exist already.

The development of the personal computer, which allowed a wide range of people to use computers brought about a blooming expansion in creativity, more expression—allowing such accessibility, such great times. That is what we thought. But digging into the background of what has taken place, I have come to believe that we have actually entered a new era where only the true essence counts. As creative professionals, we are tasked not only to learn, develop and hone our special skills, but more often than not, we now find our human qualities are being put to the test—no lies or faking are allowed. What counts is the true essence, and only that. There are plenty of qualities and qualifications that are necessary to become a creator, one who expresses himself—of which top priority must be given to the morality of expression and the morals of its creator. I believe this is the truth that defines the times we now live in.

Keiko Hirano

Keiko Hirano:
Designer/Visioner, Executive Director of Communication Design Laboratory
Hirano served on the panel that chose the official emblem for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which was ultimately withdrawn.