Ohayo, Copyright Infringement

Some of you might be aware that anime has been a part of my life for as long as I remember.  Some of the things I did to show my love of anime in those earlier days make me want to facepalm sometimes. This is a story of one of those times back in high school when I thought I was smarter than everyone else and it almost got me in trouble.
I was in high school in the mid 90’s, I was also deep into “OH MY GOD (because OMG wasn’t invented yet), anime isn’t just a cartoon!!” part of my life. I was watching anything remotely related to anime on TV, using any extra cash I had to buy Ranma 1/2 VHS tapes, and buying random Japanese import magazines that I couldn’t read whenever I found one.  I had accumulated a small stack of Japanese NewType and Animage magazines and would look at the art from them regularly. A few shows I knew but many I didn’t.
During my senior year our class was asked to submit art designs for our senior t-shirt. We would wear this shirt during pep rallies and other events where we wanted to represent ourselves as a class.  I naturally had the thought that it would be super cool if the t-shirt art was anime related so I decided that I would submit something.  I could barely draw a circle so I hatched the brilliant idea of trying to copy one of the images from the Japanese anime magazines I had. I found an image of two kids in school jumping large on the page from some anime I had no clue of. If I didn’t know what it was I’m betting no one else at school would either.
I first tried to draw these free hand by looking at the picture and then drawing what I saw but these turned out more …lets call it ‘abstract’ than what I was going for. I gave up on this pretty quick and went to straight lifting of the artwork in 3 easy steps:
  • Lay some wax paper over the image
  • Trace the art with a black pen
  • Use copy machine to transfer art to regular paper
I didn’t copy everything on the page, just the two characters so I added a scroll in the middle and wrote something about being a senior. I did actually write this part, but I’m betting it was pretty terrible. I don’t really remember any more.  I do remember that my first draft had a vodka bottle saying ‘Absolute Senior’ instead of a scroll to mimic the Absolute Vodka ads that were popular at the time. I had 40+ of these ads ripped from issues of Entertainment Weekly on the ceiling of my room at the time. I changed this out after coming to my senses and realizing the school wasn’t going to put a bottle of alcohol on the back of our office class shirt. I submitted the art the next day. I felt a little bit bad for submitting art that I didn’t draw later that day. I calmed myself by saying, “They probably won’t pick it any ways. I’m sure there will be a lot of submissions and why would they go with some weird Japanese styled art anyways?”  Little did I know I was either the only submission or one of very few. They choose my art for the t-shirt.
I will add that I was extra surprised that they didn’t ask to see the original artwork or for any updates or changes. They used the copied piece of paper I submitted for their master screen print. Bonus, my ‘artist signature’ on this was an anarchy symbol with a small ’s’ squeezed into bottom. Because I was totally hardcore back then with my binders of dot-matrix printed anime info sheets.  When the shirts were first passed out a few students questioned why this symbol was on the shirt but I never really owned up to drawing it to anyone outside of my circle of friends to play it safe. That’s the weird thing too, they never made an announcement on me suppling the artwork for the shirt at any point. Maybe they knew it was a copy or they didn’t really get it but had to choose something and thought it better to just slide it out there without any pomp and circumstance. Which was fine by me.
After the first week of the shirt being out there any questions or issues about it seemed to waver. Hell, some people even liked it. I was in the clear. No one in the school knew or cared that the art was lifted and that I drew it. The only people who might be able to recognize this art would need to be Japanese school kids. It wasn’t like we were every going to have anyone from Japan come to our school in small town Seekonk, MA. Population: Not Boston.
About a month later we got the announcement that a Japanese school was visiting the US and choose to spend part of the day at out our high school. About 200 kids of different grade levels coming to our school. There would be a big assembly. We were asked to wear our class t-shirts. …oh crap.
You may dream
I spent the next few weeks talking myself off the ledge about being ‘discovered’. I first was telling myself that they might not know the characters since they weren’t from any anime I knew. Because clearly 17 year old me who had access to dial-up internet via the school library knew more about anime at the time than a school of Japanese teenagers. I started to think of the worst case scenarios that could take place if I was ratted out.
Top scariest ‘worst case scenarios’:
  • I would have to apologize on the local news for my crimes and forced to leave town after graduation due to the looks I would get from everyone and the shame I would bring to my family.
  • The Japanese would be offended that we copied a beloved characters and I would be expelled to save face for my city, state, and country.
  • The FBI would be brought in to take me away for forgery of copyrighted foreign art and eventually sent to Siberia for life after a lengthy OJ Simpson styled TV trial.
  • They would take my anime away and I would be banned from ever watching it again!
Sent to Sing Sing
The day came and everyone excited to show all the Japanese students our school. I should have been as well. A chance to interact with kids my age who have direct access to the art form I was currently obsessed with. I was too nervous to even bring up the question of anime to anyone. American or Japanese. As I walked through the halls I saw different Japanese students point at our shirts with excitement. They knew exactly who the characters were on the shirt. Most of them couldn’t speak that much English was the odds were still not in my favor that no one would bring this up or at least politely comment on it. Clearly I was doomed. I might as well turn myself over to the authorities. Anyone got the number for the White House?
To my surprise no one brought this up in any langue. The Japanese students seemed to just be happy that an american high school was wearing official t-shirts with anime on them. After the fog of fear dissipated I started to notice how nice everyone was. We even had an assembly for both schools to meet each other where some of the Japanese students even sang a very heartfelt rendition of ‘To Be With You’ by Mr. Big. At the end of the day everyone had a good experience and I was still free to come to school for the foreseeable future, finish watching Tenchi Muyo, and not added to any watch lists.
I’m betting by now you are wondering what art I used for this shirt. So am I actually. I never did find out what show it was from, I’m pretty sure I don’t have the magazine anymore, no clue what happened to the ‘original’ art, and the t-shirt might be buried in a box somewhere in our shed but I have no clue.
I may have not been sent to Alcatraz after all this but I did learn not to copy other people’s works ever again. Between the stress of getting caught and missing out on the chance to talk with kids from Japan about anime the whole experience was more than enough of a punishment to get me back on the straight and narrow.