A panel at this week’s TIFFCOM discussed how figuring out who owns the rights to a novel can be a complicated business in Japan.

Japanese books are frequently adapted into films, but it can still be confusing to figure out who owns the rights to a novel, said speakers on a panel at this week’s TIFFCOM.

Part of the Lunch With Books event, the panel brought together three entertainment lawyers and an agent to discuss the legal issues around adaptations and remakes, particularly in the Japanese market.

Masaru Terui of Aoyama Law Offices explained there are often misunderstandings over who owns a property in Japan, because the country doesn’t have a system to register copyright agreements.

“Under agreements between publishers and authors, the publisher may have the exclusive rights to negotiate on behalf of the author regarding an option or licensing agreement,” Terui explained.

“But it depends on the case and there is no system to register those agreements in Japan, so it’s a complex area.” He added that, when it came to remakes, Japan’s production committee system of financing movies, under which several companies co-own a project, could also complicate the process.

Producer and lawyer Lucas Oliver-Frost warned that Japan has a different attitude towards contracts, compared to the US system: “Contracts are very short here – sometimes just two pages for a major agreement – so everything is discussed later. Really all you’re signing for is to commence discussions,” Oliver-Frost said.

Yuma Terada, co-owner of literary agency Cork Inc, said that the agency system doesn’t really exist in Japan. “We set up two years ago to represent writers and manga artists. We’re trying to create a situation where overseas producers who come to Japan will know who to contact.” Along with Oliver-Frost, he also advised producers to be clear when licensing rights to remake a film, that they also had rights to the underlying book or other material that the film was based on.

Hong Kong-based lawyer Michael Leow explained that Hong Kong used hardly any contracts 10-15 years ago, but that the situation was improving. “I always see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as the starting point, as it put Asia on the map and created a lot of opportunities for collaboration between East and West,” Leow said.

“Before that contracts were done on a handshake. But it’s developed over the years because Asian product is recognised in the international arena, so Western buyers want to acquire it for exploitation in the West.”

Another issue discussed was the amount of creative control that writers should be given over the adaptations of their books. “If it’s a top writer, they may have right of approval on the first draft, but pay them the full amount soon after to give them incentive to approve,” advised Oliver-Frost.

“Another option is to bring on the writer as a partner, but keep the budget low, as you may end up making something you can’t release.”

Terada added: “Sometimes we are asked to come on board a project to control our writers. If the agency market grows in Japan, then they could be become useful partners for you.”