Do Anime Productions Have To Pay To Use Classical Music?

by Justin Sevakis,

Heike asked:

Sometimes I hear Western music in anime. I assume that permission had to be acquired to use popular music songs, but what about classical music? Does Japan have public domain for things like Bach/Beethoven?

Japan does have the concept of "public domain" in its copyright law, and in fact, it goes much further than US public domain protections. According to Japanese law, copyrighted works stay copyrighted for only 50 years past the death of its author. Copyright for movies was originally only 50 years past its original release, but that was extended to 70 years in 2004. A court ruled that that the extension couldn't be applied to works already made public domain before the law was passed, so anything produced before 1953 is completely free and open. This has led to a lot of big Hollywood movies from that era being distributed as cheap ¥500 DVDs at vendors all over Japan!

But I digress. The point is, yes, classical compositions are public domain in Japan and pretty much everywhere else. Anime composers can -- and do -- incorporate classical themes and songs into anime soundtracks all the time. As long as the performance is an original one recorded for that show, there are no royalties to pay aside from what is normally due to the music composer for the entire anime project.

There are exceptions, of course. Individual RECORDINGS of classical performances can be copyrighted, so if there's a specific recording of a classical music performance, that recording must be licensed and royalties must be paid on it. This isn't common with anime -- there's already somebody making new music for the show, so recording an already-existing classical composition wouldn't be much additional work. However, for movies and productions with little music, licensing an existing recording might be cheaper than paying someone to record a new one. Or perhaps the show's director really really loves a specific version of the song.

Music that's in the public domain can also be arranged in new ways that ARE copyrighted. A few classical works, for example, have been adapted into trance versions. Those trance versions are definitely copyrighted, and must be licensed as if they were new compositions.

We all remember the iconic and conspicuous use of famous classical songs in anime, like Bach's "Jesus bleibet meine Freude" in End of Evangelion, or Madame Butterfly in Katsuhiro Otomo's Memories. But classical music has become such a part of the fabric of anime that we barely even realize it sometimes. Just this week, I was listening to the soundtrack to the new film Call Me By Your Name, which featured the classical piano piece "Bureaucratic Sonatina" by Eric Satie. When it came on, all I could think of were rollicking fantasy-comedy high school anime.

What's your favorite usage of a classical tune in anime? Let us know in the comments!

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the 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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