Photo/Illutration Artist Nobuki Yamamoto’s telephone booth filled with goldfish, titled “Message,” left, and a similar goldfish phone booth installed in Yamato-Koriyama, Nara Prefecture (Provided by Naramachi Press)

OSAKA--The legal tide turned for artist Nobuki Yamamoto on Jan. 14, as the high court here overturned a ruling dismissing his copyright violation claim over his artwork of a telephone booth filled with goldfish, awarding him 550,000 yen ($5,300) in damages.

The Osaka High Court ordered a cooperative union of merchants and other entities in Nara Prefecture whom the contemporary artist sued for setting up their own goldfish telephone booth in their town to pay him compensation for copying it without his consent.

Yamamoto, 64, had sought 3.3 million yen in damages from the union and other entities that installed the phone booth in Yamato-Koriyama, Nara Prefecture.

Yamamoto, based in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, unveiled an artwork titled “Message” in December 2000 in which he put goldfish in a tank replicating a phone booth, including features such as air bubbles rising out of the telephone receiver, according to the court ruling. 

In 2014, the union and other entities filled an out-of-order phone booth with water and dozens of goldfish and exhibited it as a tourist attraction in Yamato-Koriyama. The city is famous as a major goldfish producer.

In its July 2019 ruling, the Nara District Court rejected the artist's copyright infringement claim, concluding his work was not subject to the Copyright Law.

“Putting goldfish inside and letting them swim around by likening an item such as a telephone booth to an aquarium is nothing but an idea and not an expression,” the court said.

But the Osaka High Court ruled that Yamamoto’s artwork as a whole was covered by the Copyright Law, concluding that the artist's decision to generate air bubbles out of the artwork's telephone receiver to simulate a conversation constituted creative expression.