Tuesday, June 11, 2019

From No-No to Win-Win: Injustice, Copyright, and Japanese-Americans

In May of 2019, Penguin Classics re-published “No-No Boy” by John Okada. The novel is the story of a Japanese American man’s struggle to find his way in the aftermath of being interned with other Japanese in America  and later imprisoned over dubious “loyalty” questions during World War II.

The story was largely ignored and even shunned by the Japanese American community when first published in 1957. In 1976, Shawn Wong republished the book and asserted a copyright in the name of Dorothy Okada, John's widow. The book enjoyed relative success with more than 160,000 copies sold. While being rejected decades ago, the story is now revered as an important work in the Japanese American community.

Complaints and Outrage

As the New York Times writes, this "should be a moment of celebration for Okada's literary legacy." However, Penguin Classics’ re-publishing of “No-No Boy” has been met with much objection. Penguin asserts that “No-No Boy” is in the public domain. Others claim, including Wong, that it is still intellectual property protected by the copyright he asserted in 1976. Further, Penguin Classics did not initially confer with the Okada family before it republished the book, and it is unclear if it will pay royalties to the family.

Beyond the intellectual property rights and compensation issues, a host of other complaints have been lobbed at Penguin Classics.

  • Wong asserts Penguin has “chosen commerce over decency” and its publication is a “moral outrage.”
  • Viet Thanh Nguyen tweets, “I am very disappointed in Penguin Classics for appropriating John Okada’s NO NO BOY.”
  • Vincent Schleitwiler asserts, “Penguin's negligence erases decades of Asian American literary history.” 
  • Steve Sumida faults Penguin for falsely claiming that “NO-NO BOY” is the first ever Japanese American novel. There were other books preceding it. The false claim does irreparable harm to authors like Shelley Ota (and her family) as it disregards and disrespects her work, “Upon Their Shoulders” that was published in 1951.
Wong has proposed a solution:
Penguin should recall all the copies of No-No Boy and withdraw it from distribution and donate the copies to libraries worldwide.
Indeed, even though Penguin hasn't "recalled" the book, some book stores have voluntarily returned copies of the Penguin edition back to Penguin and presumably will stock the University of Washington Press edition (the one “authorized” by Wong and the Okada family).  Also, many encourage educators and readers to only buy the latter edition, not the former.

Specific Problems vs. Complaints

I’m not sure what “problems” are solved by Wong's proposed solution – perhaps because it’s unclear what the complaints are really about. “Appropriation,” “(in)decency,” “negligence,” and "irreparable harm" are emotionally loaded words that should be taken seriously. What are the deep meanings here? In decoding them, I infer four specific problems:

  • Dorothy Okada holds the copyright to “No-No Boy” –- Wong asserts he filed for the copyright on her behalf in 1976. Penguin disagrees and claims the story is in the public domain.
  • Dorothy Okada’s estate receives no financial compensation for Penguin’s republishing/sales of the story. Penguin did not confer with the Okada estate, even out of out courtesy before publishing the book.
  • Penguin Classics published "No-No Boy" without acknowledging Wong’s editions (published by the Combined Asian American Resources Project -- basically Wong -- and the University of Washington Press). Many have argued that this “erases” Wong’s meta-story of how he found Okada’s work, got the copyright on behalf of Dorothy, and published, sold and distributed the book on his own until he negotiated for the University of Washington Press to do it.
  • Errors by Penguin, such as those found by Sumida, are irreparably damaging – not  just “picky or idle matter(s).”
As for addressing these problems, Penguin would do itself well to come to a financial agreement with the Okada estate. My research in the economics of publishing tells me that the fair market value is probably quite small. People not in the publishing business might be surprised. Publishing is a business. Offering reasonable compensation to the Okadas takes the ethical issue of financial greed off the table.

Copyright Page in Wong's Publication by University of Washington Press

As for the copyright issue, this is complicated. The details matter. I’ve read copyright laws (although I am not a lawyer).  The Copyright Act of 1909, the Berne Convention, the Copyright Act of 1976, and the Copyright Renewal Act of 1992 are all relevant. The Okada estate, or maybe Wong because he has taken an interest in this issue, has a reasonable case to be made. However, defending their rights will likely be expensive.  Perhaps understanding what is to gained by asserting this right will inform action. I’m not sure who is right here.

Wong’s meta-story is an important one. However, I fail to see how Penguin has a responsibility to tell it. Does simply acknowledging Wong’s edition of “No-No Boy” (but possibly side-stepping the copyright issue) suffice? Wong’s meta-story appears to be conflated with the copyright issue.

As for factual errors as pointed out by Sumida, I’d think a correction could be warranted. I respect Sumida’s assertion of the seriousness of these errors, even though I don’t fully understand the implications of them. Would a correction suffice? Maybe the damage is all ready done.

My Point of View

“No-No Boy” is an important story that deserves to be heard.  I’m pleased that there is an opportunity for a new distribution of this book. Penguin Classics states re-publication will “spark new conversations, reach a wider audience of readers, and increase awareness of John Okada's legacy.” I agree. The marketing and distribution clout of Penguin is vast – it can put the book into the hands of many new readers. It can reach audiences that is likely impossible for smaller publishers. We shouldn’t lose sight of this.

The copyright dispute is unfortunate. I hope it can be resolved quickly and cost effectively. In many regards, I hope the dispute boils down to money – and it is resolvable at reasonable cost.

Much like patent laws, public domain laws brings value to consumers after creators have had an appropriate opportunity to monetize their work. For those that are thankful that the patent on drugs expire allowing for “generics” to be manufactured royalty free, public domain laws should be equally appreciated. In this case, the intellectual property rights over “No-No Boy” are not settled. For what copyright is suppose to protect – financial compensation for authors – Penguin should negotiate in good faith with the Okada estate.

Withdrawing support for this edition of the book (i.e. stopping future publication, distribution, and sales) and, as Shawn recommends, issuing a recall of books all ready delivered, is counter to this opportunity. This is not conducive to the greater goal of large distribution.

A successful distribution of “No-No Boy” by Penguin can be a win for Penguin, the Okada estate, the history of Japanese Americans, and the public at large. While the other issues raised have merit on their own right, let us not kill this potential opportunity by conflating them with this copyright dispute. Let's find a win-win solution for all.


This controversy has brought much negative publicity for Penguin Classics, but it has brought much attention to "No-No Boy." Ironically, this has likely resulted in more book sales and greater awareness of Okada. Negative earned media has been an unexpected marketing vehicle bringing success for this story.

You can buy the University Press version -- the "Wong/Okada" version here. You can buy the Penguin Classics' version here.

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