She’s got a number one, chart-topping single. She’s currently selling out stadium concerts, and has an increasingly popular Facebook page. She gives Justin Bieber a run for his money in terms of screaming, adoring fans. Her name is Hatsune Miku, and she’s taken the Japanese music scene by storm. She’s even beginning to develop an international following, and has now set her sights on the U.S. (parents, watch your preteens). She’s a record company’s dream: she never whines or complains about underreported royalties, and she never cancels her tours to check into rehab.
Oh, and one more thing — she isn’t real.
I don’t mean fictional like Hannah Montana. Or a poseur, like, well, Hannah Montana (err, that’s Miley Cyrus, of course). I mean she really, truly isn’t human.
Hatsune Miku is a computer. To be more precise, she’s a digital avatar created by Japanese technology company Crypton Future Media, which customers can purchase and then program to perform any song on a computer by inputting music and lyrics. Her voice was created by taking vocal samples from a voice actress; the samples each contained a single Japanese phonetic sound which, when strung together by the synthesizing software, produces a virtually endless number of words and phrases. The samples were then run through Yamaha’s Vocaloid software to create the android superstar — like Anime Auto-Tune.
But it gets weirder. Miku gives sold-out live performances. She “appears” on stage by way of ahologram backed by a live band, and performs to throngs of crazed, glow-stick waving fans. She’s become a cultural phenomenon, yet everything about her comes from a computer (unlikeGorillaz, whose cartoon band simply serves as the public face of real live human artists).
Apparently, being an A.I. (artificial intelligence, not American Idol) doesn’t shield you from being co-opted for political purposes; like Jackson Browne and Don Henley claimed before her, Hatsune Miku’s music has been used without permission in a political campaign. The Democratic Party of Japan sought to secure the use of Miku’s name and image in the House of Councillors election held in July 2010, in hopes that the Party’s running candidate would better appeal to younger voters. When Crypton denied the request, the candidate featured the Party’s own mascot, “Minshu-kun”, in a YouTube promotional music video. But the theme song used, “We Are the One,” is in fact sung in Miku’s voice, although not credited to her. As of press time, neither Miku nor Crypton have sued.
Which all raises — but does not beg — the question: who even owns the copyright in Miku’s songs? As copyright law protects original works of “authorship,” defining both the author and the work is a primary concern. There certainly is creativity and authorship in the software code of the Vocaloid software and the design of the Miku avatar, both of which would be subject to copyright protection. But to the extent that people have an appropriate license to use the Vocaloid software (i.e., bought it), copyright law would probably have nothing more to say about protecting Miku’s voice (which is not itself subject to copyright protection).
At the same time, Miku’s sudden rise to fame was spawned by “Nico Nico Douga” (“Smiley Smiley Videos”), a Japanese online and mobile video site (with a way cooler name than “YouTube”) at which (often anonymous) users began creating, submitting and collaborating on original compositions for Miku to “sing.” While most countries do offer copyright protection to anonymous works, the way in which these videos have been created and shared suggests that their authors intended to put the musical works into the public domain (or make them available to the world — at least for such non-commercial — uses on a perpetual, royalty-free basis). While the writers of widely commercially exploited Miku hits like “World Is Mine” — I challenge you to watch 30 seconds of this video and not have your jaw on the floor — could seek to more aggressively protect their traditional copyright rights as songwriters, to the extent that Miku’s music is largely collaborations by anonymous people online, her music and songs are all seemingly copyright lawsuit-free. Take that, RIAA.
The whole cultural phenomenon gives me weird flashbacks to my upper-level English class, “Fantasy and Science Fiction Literature.” Our regular readers are well versed in the many instances in which real life technological advances have sprung from the pages of science fiction (seriously, though, scientists, where is my flying car already?). Well here, famed author William Gibson was pretty prescient — his 1996 futuristic thriller Idoru, set in 21st Century Tokyo, revolves around a protagonist who is rumored to be engaged to an “idoru” or “idol singer,” an artificial celebrity creation of information software agents. Prophetic? Yes. Pacifying? Not so much: Gibson’s futuristic society was “so media-saturated that only computers hold the hope for imagination, hope and spirituality.” Charming.
Maybe I’m just getting old, but I don’t plan on shelling out my hard earned cash to see a hologram live in concert. In fact, I actually find the whole thing mildly disturbing. Still, Miku’s cultural significance cannot be denied.
Loosely translated from Japanese, “Hatsune Miku” means “First Sound of the Future.” Really? Oh, well. Roll over, Beethoven…