Pinpointing Miku’s Success: Free as in They’re not Suing Us!

I read a piece about the troubles Nokia faced as a large tech company that was in essence focused on making commodities; its structural thinking ran contrary to the core impulses that keep tech companies alive and thriving. At least, so said one ex-employee. In some ways this is exactly the key ingredient we talked about in part one of Miku’s interesting perfect storm. However, what we didn’t talk about is how it was made possible in the first place. [You can date this post now, right?]

Understanding this second point I’m trying to illustrate is, in essence, an overview of an aspect of copyright and trademark legal concepts. Or at least that’s how I look at it.

I won’t be the first or last person to make statements about the way we think being shaped by the way certain commercial practices are set up; advertising and branding are two big ways in which we can come to understand modern popular culture and consumer behavior. Branding, specifically, is a powerful thing that people have long since taken advantage of as a way to sell possible crap. Crap, I say, because trademarks is a label you apply on something so you don’t have to verify or experience it on the surface. It saves you the trouble to objectively verify and compare it to your alternatives, or more commonly, it is a value-added factor. In a media-rich environment it saves time and filters signal from noise; brands are convenient.

On a basic level, brands have to be regulated or protected. The first reason behind this is that if you don’t control what gets branded what, people would take advantage of a brand and pass all sorts of things under it, thus diluting it and making it less useful. Part of that concern is also preventing your economic competitors from reaping the fruits of your labor. You see this most excitingly play out in markets like biotech and other consumer markets.

But we’ve moved beyond that today. Not only do brands facilitates transaction, but at times it has become a part of the transaction as well. In marketing identity, brands are the actual products, and what the physical thing you can buy with the brand on it takes a back seat. (Best example: Nobody cared if the iPod benchmarked poorly compared to many of its competitors until in recent years.) In essence, it is the mysterious factor that distinguishes things beyond their objective merits. It is value-added, just like how a sports celebrity may endorse a product, and thereby associating his or her identity to that product in the mind of some people. Mascots are of a similar way.

However, in the end the mascot is still associated with something; a brand is about, like, clothes or food or heavy industrial equipment. This is where I think Miku is the next frontier. For one, she already signifies a sort of genre, when we talk about the music aspect of vocaloid fandom. You’ve got the vocaloid stuff, which is, largely speaking, a musical instrument. So it’s sort of like saying “stringed music” or “percussion music” when we go on about vocaloid music. Miku is kind of the biggest symbol among vocaloids, so maybe we can liken her to “piano” and Megpoid as “harpsichord” and Keito as “accordion” or some such.

“But wait, doesn’t that mean it is no longer meaningful as a brand”? Is it genericide, in trademark speak? I don’t think so. It is something a lot more than that: Miku has transformed into a living identity. You can’t “genericide” Lady Gaga, just like you can’t do so for every single Nat King Cole knockoff that has come our way, or every band that draws from the Beatles or Rolling Stones. I guess suicide is possible though.

Well, that isn’t even possible with a virtual diva. They don’t get into sex scandals nor do they go around shopping their recording contracts to rival recording companies and producers. What are virtual divas? Characters. And furthermore, they are like character copyrights.

The merger of a trademark and a copyright is not exactly a foreign concept. The two can seen as partners in certain lawsuits. But I’m not here to talk about lawsuits, or rather, I’m here to talk about the lack there of. By evoking copyright I am not so much trying to describe what legal protections are afforded Crypton, but the nature of Hatsune Miku as transformed from merely a kanban musume into someone more akin to a character from an actual literary creation, and all of its subsidiary derivatives and the support of its canon.

Well, by canon I mean the attempt to try to draw a circle around the loose federation of what makes up what the collective of all of us think when we think about “Miku Hatsune.” There is a clear fan-generated and fan-acknowledged canon. The leek is officially endorsed. And like Yuu, I have no idea why a tuna goes with Luka [okay I have a vague idea].  This is important because by specifying the mascot in a way that is akin a fictional character, we have a definitive (although may not be as specific as copyright law would like it to be) set of characteristics. In this sense it is akin to saying a Playstation looks and feels like such a way, or how a Volkswagen has to have this symbol here. The difference is that like other character copyrights: Mickey Mouse, Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, etc., are more a canvas for fans rather than a list of specifications derived from a tangential narrative that happened to be so-called “canon” because it is the legally permitted work/derivative work of the original creator. So yes, it’s okay if Miku and Mickey play around as super-deformed characters; it’s not okay to pass off an iPhone after being rolled over by a road roller.

The freedom I’m trying to illustrate is the key second point to Miku’s success. It gives fan a certain range of freedom not unlike how Gibson or Fender has no say in the way you smash their guitars during an on-stage trance (let alone what music you may play with these instruments), yet at the same time companies can point at Miku and say, hey, we can use this brand to sell stuff, and people would know what it is. Sort of. Put it from the opposite perspective, it is more like Crypton wouldn’t have to worry about Miku competitors so much (like all those UTAU stuff) since it’s now something with a totally unique identity (even if it’s unique like a generic pop idol). It is like an outpouring of creative hive-mindedness meeting producers with money at the juncture of a legally grey sector. We already mentioned in part 1 that the actual engine to Miku’s (largely financial) success is its participatory culture, and functionally she’s an inexpensive, turn-key solution to some of life’s trickier creative problems. What I’ve covered here is more the overhanging shelter that made it a sensible economic choice even for creators out to exploit the market in a financially significant way.

I mean, somebody has to be able to explain things like this, correctly or not? Who in their right mind would advertise Miku on the streets of Tokyo? That cost money! This is how they can make it back.

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