Photo/IllutrationA jigsaw puzzle using an image of Byodoin temple’s Phoenix Hall (Yasukazu Akada)

  • Photo/Illustraion

A temple in the ancient capital has been broken up into 300 pieces--puzzle pieces, that is--and the real temple is having a fit.

Byodoin temple filed a lawsuit with the Kyoto District Court against a toymaker for marketing a jigsaw puzzle based on the temple's famed Phoenix Hall.

As the suit was filed in March, however, the hall in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, is already in the public domain, meaning that Byodoin does not have a copyright on the structure.

The move is among many by Japanese temples and museums prohibiting third parties from using images of artworks they own. However, an expert pointed out that the common practice has little basis in law.


According to a written complaint and other documents, Yanoman Corp. in Tokyo released a 300-piece jigsaw puzzle using an image of Phoenix Hall taken by a professional photographer with the moon at night.

Byodoin argues that it specifies in its pamphlet that “commercial use of snapped photos is prohibited” and the jigsaw puzzle constitutes a violation of the rule. It also insists the product could make people mistakenly believe that the temple easily allows commercial image use, damaging Byodoin’s social reputation.

The temple has demanded that Yanoman stop selling the puzzle, discard its stock and pay 200,000 yen ($1,888) in compensation.

"I want people to understand the feeling of religious officials who see it as unacceptable to break their carefully preserved Phoenix Hall into puzzle pieces," said lawyer Rei Hashiguchi. "Rules need to be established out of consideration for temples, and I would like to raise a question over the issue."

Yanoman countered that Phoenix Hall has already become a public-domain property, as it is used for the 10-yen coin design and other articles, and that selling the jigsaw would not undermine the temple's social reputation.

The key issue is whether Byodoin will be allowed to control the use of images of the structure in such a way.


Temples and museums have traditionally stopped photos of their cultural properties and art pieces from being published in books, and it is also common for them to demand usage fees.

However, as the copyrights of old cultural assets and artistic productions have expired, there is little legal basis for temples and museums to restrict use of images taken by third parties.

Despite this, users often accept the regulation out of consideration to such cultural facilities.

Lawyer Kensaku Fukui, who is knowledgeable about Copyright Law and calls such vague rights "pseudo-copyrights," noted that many arguments have recently been presented based on them.

In those cases, creators of famous out-of-copyright characters strictly limit use of the creations. In a similar move, the organizing committee for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics prohibits commercial use of the terms "Tokyo 2020" and "sacred torch."

"Excessive control will have greater negative effects deriving from non-free use of contents," said Fukui. "Owners should make clear control rules and refrain from making extreme claims."

When Shogakukan Inc. released 20 installments of books featuring Japanese artworks, the publisher was prohibited from posting a commonly used photo of a renowned Buddhist statue designated as a national treasure.

Though Shogakukan considered releasing a digitized version of the works, it was unclear when it could be published, as the publisher has to gain approval for online use of artwork images again.

“The idea that cultural assets are part of the common properties of citizens is not shared sufficiently among Japanese,” said Yoshio Shimizu, a senior Shogakukan official in charge of the project. “This is in contrast to foreign museums’ active efforts to release high-definition images of art pieces, allowing their free use in some cases.”


A committee headed by former Commissioner for Cultural Affairs Masanori Aoyagi and comprising Shimizu and museum officials, which discusses effective use of artistic productions, worked out a plan to take advantage of cultural properties and pieces of art on Aug. 8 with an eye toward solving the problem.

Under the proposal, a third-party organization will record cultural assets on behalf of temples and shrines to provide their digitized images for users. Commissions from users will be used to manage the organization.

“Japan lags behind in digitization of cultural properties and artworks, making it difficult to promote them outside Japan,” said Aoyagi. “Aggressive promotion would provide great advantages for temples and shrines, such as increased visitor numbers. Reforms must be carried out as soon as possible."