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I’m working on my first draft of a retelling of a popular manga series from the 90s. It has been adapted and redone at least 6-10 times as an Asian drama TV series in many different countries. I’m very passionate about the story and thought I’d like to do my own spin on it in novel form.

Long story short, I’d eventually like to query it to an agent but I

  1. Don’t know how I’d explain it to an agent
  2. Worry that it could never be published because it’s based off another work. My version is quite different from the original, but has some of the same plot lines and bones of the original.

If I went and tried to get this published would I run into trouble?

  • Might want to avoid the word "opinion" as questions involving that word lead to locked questions. That said, it sounds like a legal thing an agent wouldn't want to touch, but that's based on absolutely nothing. Also, you say that there are plenty of derivative works already, but you don't know if those were made AFTER express permission was given. Also, Japan has more permissive copyright laws as opposed to the US where Disney will never let Mickey Mouse fall into public domain. – Nero gris May 6 '18 at 0:54
  • Welcome to Writing.SE! Interesting question. Which country are you in? Legal questions often require information about your location to be tailored towards your needs. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! – Secespitus May 6 '18 at 5:34
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    I’m from the US and the original work is Japanese. Also it may be worth it to mention that the original author passed away about 20 years ago. – JennyDee May 6 '18 at 16:09
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The original manga series, as well as the existing adaptations, will probably be protected under copyright law. If you adapt one of them, even loosely, you may break that law and the copyright owner might sue you.

Whether this will happen will depend on how close your own work is to the original. If you are merely inspired by the manga and tell your own original version of a common tale, you'll likely have no problem. But if you "retell" the manga, you likely need to ask the copyright holder for permission.

Only a lawyer (who has read both the original and your retelling) will be able to give you more detailed advice.

  • Yes… I was about to say exactly the same, but Clouchaser said it first and clearly! – Robbie Goodwin May 6 '18 at 13:47
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Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, but spotting media law problems is a big chunk of my work.

What you are proposing is definitely a breach of copyright laws, and could get you sued if your work was published.

The creator (whether an individual or a company) of the original manga owns that work.

The creator grants a publisher a licence - ie permission - to print and distribute the manga for a period of time (eg a year), or for a number of print runs (eg the first print run - anecdote follows).

The creator also holds derivative rights: these refer to adaptations of the manga in other media - such as TV. These can be kept, sold on entirely (ie creator has no say in adaptations) or licensed (ie creator gives permission for a company to adapt their work).

So TV production companies would likely have paid the creator for the right to make TV shows based on their manga.

What you are proposing is adapting the manga into a prose novel. To do that you would need a derivative rights licence from whoever owns the right to prose adaptations. (This is where lawyers come in.)

An agent will check if you have the adaptation rights and will want proof. As you don’t, any reputable agent will take a very hard pass at your offer.

However, if that manga was released into the public domain - ie the creator as surrendered all rights, other than “moral rights” - anyone could adapt the work.

Anecdote - when Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons made Watchmen, they gave DC Comics the right to publish the first run of the Watchmen graphic novel, after which rights would return to them. Watchmen is still on its first print run, and Moore and Gibbons get very little in royalties.

  • This was very insightful. The person who originally wrote the manga is also dead now. So that would also likely complicate the matter. I plan to use this project more as practice for other ideas I have. – JennyDee May 8 '18 at 20:46
  • @JennyDee Death does make things in publishing more complicated. The creator’s estate could own the rights, or they could be owned by a company, or a trust: but they will be owned by someone. You could do fanfic based on this project - unless it was somehow damaged the original work (either financially or reputationally(sp?) you’re unlikely to get in legal trouble. And if it ends up being popular, it’ll be good publicity for your professional work. Hope the project goes well. – Richard Cosgrove May 8 '18 at 20:56
  • That’s what I was planning. Putting the story as a fanfic online. Thank you for your help – JennyDee May 8 '18 at 21:05
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I am not a lawyer. Get a lawyer if you need legal advice. Additionally, copyright laws vary widely from country to country. What may be perfectly legal in one country may be a slam-dunk lawsuit in another.

In the US, the Copyright Act of 1976, section 102(a) says:

"Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression..."

However, section 102(b) further clarifies:

"In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work."

Copyright specifically protects the authorship; it does not protect the idea. The thorny part is determining the dividing line between those two.

If you sit down and recreate a graphic work in text form scene for scene, even if you rename the characters or make other trivial changes, you're almost certainly infringing. If, however, your story only shares major plot points with the other work, it becomes a much harder question to answer.

Suppose I wanted to write a story about a man who comes into contact with a native tribe who is being exploited for their resources by the dominant culture. The protagonist learns the natives' way of life, falls in love with a native woman, and joins with the natives to defeat his own people.

That describes the plot of both Avatar and Dances With Wolves, to name just two. I could write a new story with the same overall plot and, assuming I didn't copy the detailed elements of another work, be reasonably safe from a claim of copyright infringement.

When you say "It has been adapted and redone at least 6-10 times as an Asian drama TV series in many different countries," do you mean the overall idea or the specific story? Is the story original to the manga or does the manga retell an older story? If you translated Disney's Beauty and the Beast to text, with all of it's scenes and detailed characters included, you'd be infringing. But if you wrote a story based on the original tale, you would almost certainly not be infringing. The story of Beauty and the Beast is public domain. Disney's authorship in their particular version is protected by copyright.

Whether you would be infringing in adapting a manga depends entirely on what you mean by "adapting."

  • As far as the adaptations go, most of them are basically the same story with changed names. The manga, as far as I know is an original idea from that author. I would say my adaptation is the the least like the original, but probably close enough still to not be infringing. – JennyDee May 9 '18 at 22:45

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