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Pre-1953 Japanese films are in public domain

Update: Copyright law is complicated, and it now seems that Kurosawa is still very much under copyright. See this news item.

Original post:

News are emerging that a Tokyo District court has ruled all pre-1953 Japanese films to be in the public domain. Paramount Pictures was contesting this based on a 2004 ruling that extended copyrights for 20 years, however the court has now ruled that it cannot be applied retroactively.

This means that almost half of Akira Kurosawa’s movies now ought to be in the public domain. The titles that he directed before 1953 are:

Ikiru (1952), Hakuchi (“The Idiot”, 1951), Rashomon (1950), Shubun (“Scandal”, 1950), Nora inu (“Stray Dog”, 1949), Shizukanaru ketto (“The Quiet Duel”, 1949), Yoidore tenshi (“Drunken Angel”, 1948), Subarashiki nichiyobi (“One Wonderful Sunday”, 1947), Waga seishun ni kuinashi (“No Regrets for My Youth”, 1946), Asu o tsukuru hitobito (“Those Who Make Tomorrow”, 1946), Zoku Sugata Sanshiro (“Judo Saga II”, 1945), Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi (“They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail”, 1945), Ichiban utsukushiku (“The Most Beautiful”, 1944), Sugata Sanshiro (“Judo Saga”, 1943).

It also includes the more than thirty films that he worked on as an assistant director before Sugata Sanshiro, as well as the some 20 additional films that he scripted for other directors before 1953.

In fact, if I understand this correctly, it is not only pre-1953 films made in Japan that are in the public domain in Japan. The ruling should also include foreign films released before that date.




Akira Kurosawa News and Information » Blog Archive » Public Domain Kurosawa Films Available on Google Video

[…] Some of you may remember my earlier post about pre-1953 Japanese films being in public domain. While I am still a bit shaky in this particular subject matter (I am far from being a lawyer), it now seems that someone is uploading at least some of Kurosawa’s old films to Google Video. […]


Download Rashomon at the Internet Archive :.: Akira Kurosawa News and Information

[…] As reported earlier, Japanese movies made before 1953 are in public domain. The Internet Archive, which archives Internet and multimedia resources, has now added a downloadable version of Kurosawa’s Rashomon. […]


Toho sues Cosmo Contents for selling DVDs of Kurosawa’s early works :.: Akira Kurosawa News and Information

[…] readers may remember an earlier post about pre-1953 Japanese films being in public domain at least in […]


Kyoko Fan

Movies released during 1953 are also in the public domain. Here’s how the Tokyo District Court reached this result.
Under the Copyright Law as it existed through the end of 2003, the term of protection for a movie was 50 years, measured from the beginning of the year following the year of its release. Thus the term of protection for a movie released in 1953, being measured from the beginning of 1954, expired at the end of 2003.
In mid-2003 the Diet rewrote the Copyright Law to change the term of protection for movies from 50 years to 70 years. The Diet provided that this change would become effective from the beginning of 2004 and would be retroactive in the sense that it would extend the terms of protection for old movies that were still under copyright but would not be retroactive in the sense of restoring copyright protection to old movies that had already passed into the public domain.
The Tokyo District Court held that, as a matter of law, the end of 2003 and the beginning of 2004 are not a single time but rather two consecutive times. As of the first time, the term of copyright protection for made-in-1953 movies expired and the movies instantaneously passed into the public domain. As of the second time, the change in the Copyright Law took effect, but it didn’t restore copyright protection to made-in-1953 movies, because they had already passed into the public domain.
Your observation that this ruling also covers non-Japanese movies is correct. But please remember that this applies only in Japan. If, while in Japan, you copy lots of pre-1954 non-Japanese movies into a storage device, no problem, but if you then take the storage device with you on your travels outside Japan it’s conceivable that you could be harassed.


Vili Maunula

Thanks for the explanation, Kyoko fan! However, the latest that I have heard would seem to indicate that all of Kurosawa’s films are still firmly under copyright. Toho brought this thing to the courts in 2007, and it dragged on for a good two years.

Here’s the most recent news item about the copyright saga: Intellectual Property High Court rules Kurosawa still under copyright

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