Hatsune Miku – The Future of Personality

By Keith Laker

Mention Hatsune Miku to most Europeans and you’ll probably receive a blank stare. I admit it – until not so long ago I was one of them. Mention Hatsune Miku in her home country of Japan however, and it will be difficult to find someone who hasn’t heard of her. So – who is she and why does she matter?

First and foremost let’s define exactly what ‘she’ is. With a cursory search, you’d probably come to the conclusion that she’s an anime character popular amongst her target market of Japanese teenagers. You might even pick up on the fact that she’s also an avatar. Look a little deeper though, and the history is more interesting.

The genesis of Hatsune Miku lies in her voice, or more specifically the way it is created. In 2000 Yamaha backed the development of what became the first ‘vocaloid’ software – a means by which melody and written lyrics could automatically be combined into song – effectively a singing synthesizer. Yamaha’s Vocaloid™ software can be thought of as a set of tools, requiring the input of others to achieve a finished result. That input comes initially from vocaloid developers, who seed the Vocaloid™ software with the linguistic components that make up the sound of a language (‘phonemes’) from a real singer. In doing so, a vocaloid character (usually referred to simply as a ‘vocaloid’) with a distinctive voice is created. The final input comes from the composer(s) by way of written melody and lyrics, from which the vocaloid creates the final song. Hatsune Miku is a distinctive vocaloid created by Crypton Future Media Inc (‘Crypton’), using Yamaha’s Vocaloid™ software, and whose songs are created by a wide range of different composers.

Knowing this helps explain the name: ‘Hatsu’ meaning ‘first’, ‘Ne’ meaning ‘sound’ and ‘Miku’ meaning ‘future’, or literally ‘first sound from the future’.  Some vocaloid developers choose to keep the identity of the ‘source’ voice confidential. In the case of Hatsune Miku, it is common knowledge that Crypton used the Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita, who has enjoyed considerable fame in her own right for this role and others.

The success of Hatsune Miku has been the marriage of the Hatsune Miku vocaloid with an appealing anime character of a teenage schoolgirl with long turquoise ponytails, invariably seen holding a leek (yes) as her preferred character item. Crypton’s business strategy of selling the Hatsune Miku vocaloid software and at the same time allowing the use of her image under a creative commons (i.e. non-commercial) license has meant that a huge volume of Hatsune Miku content has been generated, to the point where, that although not the first vocaloid, she has become the undisputed vanguard of the vocaloid movement. Such is her fame that Hatsune Miku has performed as a 3-D avatar in various concerts and most recently appeared in this form on the US ‘Late Show’ TV program. (http://youtu.be/qA5pIpdQEr0)

In summary therefore, Hatsune Miku is a sampled human voice, running on commercially available software, whose output is largely written by crowd-sourced composers, linked to an anime character freely available for non-commercial use. A cursory analysis would conclude that she is just another cartoon character, owned by her corporate creator (Crypton Future Media) with an actor’s voice laid on top. Think of Mickey Mouse, Shrek, or Buzz Lightyear by way of examples.

However, look a little more closely and the details belie the accuracy of that assumption. First and foremost is her voice. Although Saki Fujita allowed her voice to be sampled as the base for the vocaloid, she does not utter the words spoken by Hatsune Miku. These are generated by the Yamaha Vocaloid™ software, as determined by the lyricist. Secondly, her music is composed by anyone using the Hatsune Miku vocaloid software and is therefore effectively crowd-sourced. Third, her appearance changes. Notwithstanding copyright over the original artwork (held by Crypton and others) the creative commons license means that Hatsune Miku’s appearance is hugely variable and constantly evolving.

All of this points to a character outside the narrow bounds of corporate ownership. A character who is evolving, whose current form is a reflection of her continuing interaction with other people, and who transcends various forms of media, rather than (to borrow a line from Peter Gabriel) being ‘trapped in birth on celluloid’. A character whom real people flock to see perform as a 3D avatar and who gets to perform in her own right on prime-time national television. This is a character who is more than the sum of her components and for whom the English language has given us a better description: a Personality. That is why Hatsune Miku is so important.

As we ease ourselves more or less comfortably into the twenty-first century, Hatsune Miku is but the harbinger of things to come. Digital personalities will become more common. No longer will avatars simply look like their human progenitors, but they will become avatoids, no longer attributable to any one human, but – one hopes – incorporating the best of humanity as a whole. Real people enjoy real rights. Digital personalities have already outgrown the protection offered by copyright and trademark and deserve appropriate and effective legal protection covering every aspect of their characters.

Conveniently, the solution already exists. It is possible to register a personality in the jurisdiction of Guernsey using the Image Rights Ordinance. By doing so, a registered personality gains protection over any distinctive characteristic, or ‘image’ associated with the registered personality. It’s a new category of intellectual property and one that goes a long way to recognizing and protecting the totality of any personality, be it natural, legal or fictional.

This article is written for the purpose of education and discussion.


© Text: Icondia 2014.   Image by Masakimi Chie