Japanese courts in Osaka and Tokyo have handed down rulings on two closely watched cases involving intellectual property rights in the peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing and DVD arenas.  

Yesterday the Osaka high court acquitted former Tokyo university researcher Isamu Kaneko of aiding and abetting the infringement of Japanese copyright law in the creation of the Winny P2P software application, first developed in 2002.

The decision reverses a 2006 Kyoto district court ruling imposing a fine of $16,850 (Y1.5m), which Kaneko appealed.

The use of Winny to freely exchange copyrighted visual and audio contents has led to successful prosecutions. A Winny user who distributed a Japanese-subtitled copy of US movie Wanted before its domestic release was sentenced last December to a suspended sentence of two years in prison.

Winny and other P2P illegal usage is a constant target of the Japan and International Motion Picture Copyright Association (JIMCA). However, the Osaka high court determined that Kaneko did not intend to violate copyright laws by the creation of the software nor profit from it. The decision has provoked support from US bloggers.

How the ruling will affect wider-ranging download laws set to go into effect on January 1, 2010 is unclear.

Meanwhile, the supreme court of Japan in Tokyo dismissed an appeal by budget DVD producer Cosmo Coordinate in a case involving Charlie Chaplin DVD releases.

The court ruled that copyright was still in effect for the nine titles ranging from 1919 to 1952, including The Gold Rush, Modern Times and Monsieur Verdoux. The films are protected until at least 2015 based on the date of Chaplin’s death rather than the expiry of the original production companies’ rights.

The suit was initiated by Liechtenstein copyright holder Roy Export S.A.S., the owner of all Chaplin works from 1918 onwards.

In a similar case against Cosmo presided over by the same judge, multiple suits were filed by Toho, Shochiku and Kadokawa over the distribution of twelve Akira Kurosawa films on DVD including Rashomon and Ikiru. The courts ruled that films produced before the 1971 amended copyright laws were still protected for 38 years after Kurosawa’s 1998 death, fining Cosmo $82,00 in damages.

The developments look to make it more difficult for DVD producers hoping to profit on public domain contents in a rapidly shrinking video market.