Why Can't Anime Use Trademarked Names?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jerome asks:

Do Manga Publishers and Anime Distributers fear a lawsuit from using a trademark? Watching a lot of anime over the years, I never see real world trademarks if any. They usually just change the name. An example is in "Freezing" they use Burger Queen (Burger King). If I was the owner of Burger King I would permit the use of the trademark free of charge. Seeing my product in a manga could entice a reader to go buy a whopper.

It's not just anime -- all motion picture entertainment needs to have trademarks "cleared" before it can be broadcast or released in any form. A trademark (which is different from a copyright) involves a name or logo under which business is done. You might've noticed a little ™ or ® next to a logo or a brand name: the ™ means "trademark", and ® means "registered trademark". Both are legally protected in North America and many other countries (including Japan). Registered trademarks have been registered with a government trademark office, and enjoy additional legal protections.

Trademarks supposed to be unique, and can't be too similar to already-existing generic names or commonly used phrases and symbols. They're are a form of intellectual property, and using them without permission can get you sued. Trademarks can be national or international, depending on how they're registered. Most familiar brand names that we all know, and are popular in Japan as well, are registered internationally.

Many directors hate making fake brands appear in their work. Having a character take a sip from a can that's just marked "SODA" or "BIFF COLA" or something equally fake is very distracting, and takes the audience out of a movie. It's not unlike having a character dial a phone number that starts with 555. It's a big flashing red light to the audience that says "WHAT YOU'RE WATCHING IS SUPER FAKE". So, whenever possible, they use real products and logos, and use those names in dialogue. It's how people actually live in real life, after all.

At major film and television studios, there's actually an entire department dedicated to clearances: they sift through every scene of every TV show and movie the studio produces, looking for trademarks, copyrighted posters and artwork in the background, and similar things that could potentially cause legal problems. They then have to find and contact every owner of those trademarks and request permission to use them. Depending on the project, this can be quite a big job. Even a poster in the background of a scene that hasn't been cleared can cause a lawsuit.

Most companies are pretty OK with their brand names and logos being used as long as it's not being portrayed in a negative light -- and in fact, many would happily pay for the privilege of having their products placed in a scene. Most will at least ask for a copy of the script so they can see what the scene is about. For example, they wouldn't want their brand associated with something like an armed robbery scene. (Copyrighted artwork usually has to be licensed and paid for, but that's another matter.) If something can't be cleared, the scene needs to be reshot, or the logo/trademark/artwork has to be digitally replaced. All that takes time and effort, but it's a normal part of the Hollywood system.

But anime is produced very quickly -- infamously so -- and there really isn't time to do all that clearance work before something gets broadcast. Moreover, with anime being... well... animated, there isn't such a high bar required to maintain realism. A director can come up with a cheeky parody or rename of a popular restaurant, and while it might invoke a snicker from the audience, nobody's going to be all that distracted by it. It's no more fake than the appearance of every character on the screen.

Back in the 80s and 90s, anime companies could sometimes get away with infringing on a trademark, but as the industry matured that became less and less acceptable, and now nobody is even willing to take the chance, especially with international distribution being such an important part of the business. And so, we get restaurants like McDymaids, Sudoh-Bucks, 6eleven, Zoogle, and so many more.

What are some of the most amusing trademark-skirting brand names you've seen in anime? Share them in the forums!

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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