For UW professor of English Shawn Wong, Penguin Book’s decision to re-publish Asian-American classic “No-No Boy,” against what seems to be an outstanding copyright, is an outrage on a legal and symbolic level.
The book is currently being published by the UW Press and has a copyright under Wong’s name on behalf of the late-author John Okada’s family.
According to Wong, after he had alleged that Penguin had violated copyright law, several lawyers offered to work pro-bono on the case. Currently, the UW Press is working on building a legal case.
Wong alleges that Penguin unlawfully published the book, never consulting him or the Okada family. On top of that, the situation has been cited by others as an outrage to the Asian-American publishing community. To Wong, and the larger publishing community, the action on the part of Penguin echoes the same imperialism of the United States during the time of Japanese internment that the book told so many years ago.
Later, many others came out in support of Wong and the Okada family's battle with Penguin. Many writers who have read, taught, or been influenced by the book in their careers cited its cultural significance.
Penguin added the book to their classics line, believing it was in the public domain. For the community, the decision by Penguin is seen as an unethical grab at money that cuts out the family from royalties that are rightly theirs.
The UW press was not able to divulge details because events were moving too quickly at the time.
Where the copyright gets difficult to understand is that in Japan there is a law that says that there has to be a certain amount of time that has to pass before a book is distributed in another country.
“I know we’re getting into the weeds of copyright law here,” Wong said. “But the short version is that the book is protected by copyright.”
Penguin alleges otherwise, but Wong says that after legal analysis and the efforts of the UW Press, the book is not in the public domain. Wong acknowledges that there is little information that is concrete at this point but expects new developments soon.
However, the question of whether the book is legally in the public domain is still up to debate. In an article by The New York Times, one intellectual property lawyer said that the book was in fact in the public domain. Other lawyers side with Wong saying that the case isn’t so clear cut and that the Penguin’s version is infringing on copyright.
Regardless, Wong and supporters of the Okada family have been advocating for people and academic institutions to buy the UW Press version in solidarity.
A novel once obscure, then dearly beloved follows a Japanese man around the time of World War Two who is sent to an internment camp after refusing to be drafted. The novel follows complex themes relating to identity and allegiance to a country that demonized its citizens because of ethnicity.
In 1957, the novel was published for the first time by Charles Tuttle in the English language throughout Japan. The book was later distributed in America.
In 1971, John Okada died, and the book was seen as a failure, according to The New York Times. After Okada’s death, Wong and three of his friends rediscovered the book and re-published it in the United States after it was rejected by many publishers. Wong copyrighted the book in America on behalf of the Okada family who receives the royalties of the book today.
In 1979, Wong and Dorothy Okada, the wife of John Okada, transferred publishing to the UW Press where it has been ever since.
“The publishing history of this book is as important as the book itself,” Wong said. “We raised our own money and published it ourselves, because we felt so strongly about it.”
The novel, set in Seattle, has been used in many classes at the UW, Wong said. The significance for the UW and many others in the community has been formative for many students and writers.
According to Wong, the Okada family doesn’t want a lawsuit, but the UW Press may still force Penguin to pay a fine and stop publishing the book.
The entire controversy around Penguin’s publishing of the book has been seen by Wong and others as an insult to the Okada family and Asian-American literary history at large.
“Again, trampling on the family’s rights,” Wong said. “It’s a book about trampling on constitutional rights and then it is ironic that they are trampling on the family’s rights."
Reach Science and News Editor Thelonious Goerz at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @TheloniousGoerz
Like what you’re reading? Support high-quality journalism by donating here.