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Is a Residential Map a Copyrighted Work? Explaining the Zenrin Lawsuit of 2022 (Reiwa 4)


Is a Residential Map a Copyrighted Work? Explaining the Zenrin Lawsuit of 2022 (Reiwa 4)

What exactly does the term “work” refer to when protected under the Japanese Copyright Law? Novels, paintings, and musical compositions might immediately come to mind as examples of works. But what about maps? While maps are explicitly recognized as works under the Copyright Law, past court decisions have indicated that they have limited scope for original expression compared to literary, musical, or artistic works, making it challenging to determine their creative status.

In 2022, the Tokyo District Court ruled that residential maps qualify as “works” under the Copyright Law. The plaintiff in this case was Zenrin Co., Ltd., a company engaged in the research, production, and sale of map information. The case originated when Zenrin filed a lawsuit for an injunction against copyright infringement against a posting company and its representative, who had repeatedly made unauthorized copies and distributions of Zenrin’s residential maps.

This article will provide a detailed explanation of the 2022 Zenrin residential map case.

Is a Residential Map a Copyrighted Work?

The plaintiff, Zenrin, is the largest residential map company in Japan. The company conducts nationwide surveys of map information and creates and sells products such as the paper-based “Zenrin Residential Map” and the electronic residential map “Digital Town” recorded on CD-ROMs and other media.

The defendant, a limited company specializing in posting services, primarily operates in Nagano Prefecture, distributing advertising materials to individual households.

Overview of the Zenrin Residential Map Case

The defendant purchased Zenrin’s residential maps for their business operations. For each distribution area where the posting staff would deliver materials, they created master maps by reducing and copying the purchased residential maps, piecing together multiple copies, and writing in necessary information for posting services such as names of apartment complexes, number of mailboxes, distribution counts, intersection names, road conditions, and addresses where distribution is prohibited. These master maps were then copied and handed to the distribution staff for their posting tasks.

Furthermore, as the defendants obtained additional information such as the number of deliverable copies, distinctions between vacant and abandoned houses, newly constructed properties, newly established roads, and the locations of house entrances and mailboxes, they would update the master maps for posting with this information and distribute copies to their staff accordingly.

In response, Zenrin claimed that copying, cutting, and pasting their residential maps to create maps for posting services, as well as copying, transferring, or lending these copies to the public, and displaying the map images on web pages within a website that manages and operates the data, constituted an infringement of their copyright (including reproduction rights, transfer rights, lending rights, and public transmission rights). Zenrin demanded partial payment for damages and sought an injunction against the posting company and its representative to stop them from reproducing, transferring, or lending the reproductions to the public, and from making them available for automatic public transmission or transmission capability, as well as the disposal of the copied maps, based on Articles 112(1) and (2) of the Japanese Copyright Law.

Related article: Explaining the ‘Going Rate’ for Copyright Infringement Damages and Two Case Studies[ja]

Criteria for Determining Whether a Map Qualifies as a Copyrighted Work

Article 10(1) of the Japanese Copyright Law lists examples of “works” under this law, including “maps or works of drawings, diagrams, models, or other graphic works of a scholarly nature,” thereby establishing that maps are copyrighted works.

However, as indicated by a 2001 (Heisei 13) court case, “Maps, which objectively represent topography and land use with specific symbols, have little room for individual expression and, compared to literary, musical, or artistic works, have less scope for recognizing creativity” (Tokyo District Court, January 23, 2001).

Nevertheless, the same decision acknowledges that “the selection and presentation of information to be included can still reflect the map creator’s personality, knowledge, experience, and the extent of on-site surveys, thus allowing for creativity” (ibid).

In conclusion, the decision states that the copyrightability of a map should be judged comprehensively based on “the selection and presentation of information to be included.”

Can Creativity in Residential Maps be Recognized as Copyrightable Works?

Arguments of both parties, court decision

In this case, the central issue was whether the residential maps exhibited enough creativity to be considered copyrightable works.

Zenrin’s Argument

The plaintiff, Zenrin, argued that their residential maps are considered creative works and qualify as copyrighted maps for the following reasons:

  • Zenrin’s residential maps are the result of meticulous on-site surveys conducted by numerous investigators. The maps are carefully edited to ensure accuracy and precision in the arrangement and representation of the information. Significant effort and creativity have been applied to make the maps both easy to understand and user-friendly, focusing on how the information is accurately arranged and expressed.
  • The house-shaped frames (outlines representing the shape of buildings when viewed from above) on each map are determined by the surveyors through on-site estimation and pacing, considering the relative positions of surrounding buildings. As a result, the frames reflect the individuality of the surveyor’s judgment, meaning that no two surveyors would produce identical shapes.
  • There is a variety of methods for depicting house-shaped frames, with each residential map company having its own approach. Zenrin’s maps employ specific expression methods chosen from a range of options, such as the thickness and length of the lines for the frames and the font used for resident names within the frames.
  • While creating each map, Zenrin may refer to the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan’s urban planning base maps. However, the visual impression of Zenrin’s maps is entirely different from that of the base maps. The urban planning base maps, which are essentially topographic maps with added information from aerial photographs, are completely distinct from Zenrin’s maps, which are created through on-site surveys and selective inclusion of information deemed necessary for their residential maps.

Claims of the Posting Company

Claims of the Posting Company

The defendant posting company argued that Zenrin’s residential maps do not qualify as copyrighted works due to a lack of originality for the following reasons:

  • While copyrightability is generally interpreted narrowly for maps, the threshold for recognizing copyright in residential maps is even more restrictive when compared to other types of maps.
  • Both the plaintiff and other residential map-making companies have been creating their maps based on existing ones, leaving little room for originality in each map.
  • Residential maps created in the past have included house-shaped frames, making the use of such frames a common expression, not unique to the plaintiff’s maps.
  • Of the house-shaped frames noted in the plaintiff’s maps, 84.7% are derived from the basic urban planning maps, and less than 1% of the frames were newly added.

Court Decision

In response to these factors, the Tokyo District Court recognized the following personalityistics of Zenrin’s residential maps:

  • The plaintiff’s maps were completed as residential maps by digitizing base maps such as urban planning maps and then adding various types of information.
  • The plaintiff’s maps have scales on all four sides, with the numbers of adjacent maps indicated at the top, top right, right, bottom right, bottom, bottom left, left, and top left positions, making it easy to search for the desired map.
  • The maps depict boundaries between roads or sidewalks and residential lots with solid lines, and boundaries between roads and sidewalks with dashed lines. Additionally, they include representations of rivers, railway lines, and road medians.
  • On the maps, residential lots are outlined with a house-shaped frame that represents the shape of the buildings as seen from above, and within these frames, the names of residents, store names, and building names are listed.

Furthermore, for lands used as parking lots or parks, the names of the parking lots or parks are indicated.

The court highlighted these and other features.

The plaintiff’s maps, while based on urban planning maps, also incorporated information from previously created residential maps. Surveyors visited the sites to add details such as the shapes of the house-shaped frames. The maps were designed to facilitate easy searching for the desired location, and through the use of illustrations, facilities were clearly displayed. Names of roads, residents, and address indications were listed, along with frames representing the shape of buildings as seen from above. Over the years, the plaintiff has selected and displayed information deemed necessary for residential maps in a manner considered more visible. Therefore, the maps issued after the recent revision can be evaluated as creative expressions of the creator’s thoughts or feelings (Japanese Copyright Law Article 2, Paragraph 1), and it is appropriate to recognize them as works of cartography (Japanese Copyright Law Article 10, Paragraph 1, Item 6).

Tokyo District Court, May 27, Reiwa 4 (2022) Decision

As a result, the court recognized Zenrin’s residential maps as copyrighted works and found that the acts of copying and distributing the original maps, distributing them to franchisees, and posting image data on web pages infringed on the rights of reproduction, distribution, and public transmission, respectively. The court ordered the defendants to cease these activities and to pay 30 million yen as part of the damages for the reproduction of approximately 970,000 pages, amounting to about 210 million yen.

Related article: Intellectual Property Infringement Risks and Countermeasures[ja]

Note that this case was settled in the appellate court, bringing the litigation to a close.

Reference: Zenrin Co., Ltd. | About the Judgment on the Copyright Infringement Lawsuit of Residential Maps[ja]

Reference: Zenrin Co., Ltd. | Announcement on the Conclusion of the Copyright Infringement Lawsuit of Residential Maps by Settlement[ja]

Summary: Caution is Needed When Using Works Internally and Externally

Generally, maps, which objectively represent phenomena such as terrain and land use with specific symbols, have limited scope for individual expression compared to literary, musical, or artistic works, and consequently, they are typically afforded a narrower range of copyright protection. However, if a map, such as a residential map, displays creativity through the selection and presentation of information based on the map creator’s personality, knowledge, and experience, it is more likely to be recognized as a copyrighted work.

Casually copying residential maps for internal use can potentially lead to copyright infringement. Similarly, there are precedents recognizing the copyright of newspaper articles, which are explained in the following article. Please read it in conjunction with this discussion.

Related Article: Is Reposting Newspaper Articles on the Intranet OK? Explaining Copyright of Newspaper Articles Through Precedents[ja]

Guidance on Measures by Our Firm

Monolith Law Office is a law firm with extensive experience in both IT, particularly the internet, and legal matters. In recent years, intellectual property rights, including copyrights, have garnered significant attention. Our firm provides solutions related to intellectual property. Please refer to the article below for more details.

Areas of practice at Monolith Law Office: IT & Intellectual Property Legal Services for Various Companies[ja]

Managing Attorney: Toki Kawase

The Editor in Chief: Managing Attorney: Toki Kawase

An expert in IT-related legal affairs in Japan who established MONOLITH LAW OFFICE and serves as its managing attorney. Formerly an IT engineer, he has been involved in the management of IT companies. Served as legal counsel to more than 100 companies, ranging from top-tier organizations to seed-stage Startups.

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