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UC Davis Law Professor Creates Cartoons to Teach Copyright Law

Keith Aoki grew up devouring comics and TV cartoons. He spent countless hours drawing and creating his own stories, eventually becoming an artist in New York City struggling to eke out a living.

Now, having traded in a nomadic existence for life as a college professor, Aoki has carved a niche in which his comics explain and explore intellectual property law. He hopes his time-consuming labor teaches and empowers not only students but also the countless artists whose creativity can be stymied by trademark and copyright laws. Aoki’s comic book characters show readers how to more easily discern the difference between piracy and public domain. The cartoons suggest, for example, how a person could make an artistic parody of a Barbie doll without copyright infringement or how to legally include fragments of a TV program in the background shot of a videotaped documentary.

“Comics are more in-your-face than scholarly articles,” explains Aoki, a University of California, Davis law professor since 2007.

His drawing style is inspired by famous artists such as Steve Ditko (Spider-Man), the late Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four) and the late Chester Gould (Dick Tracy).

Despite devoting himself to producing comic strips for nearly a decade after earning a bachelor’s in fine arts from Wayne State University in 1978, Aoki didn’t illustrate a full-length comic book until becoming a University of Oregon law professor. For three years, until 2005, he and two Duke University law faculty brainstormed, wrote, drew, laughed, tore up and re-drew their way through a collaboration. It resulted in Bound by Law? — a 78-page book starring a filmmaker planning a documentary about daily life but confused about copyright law.

Aoki portrayed the heroine, Akiko, on a riff of the iconic Marvel Comics superhero Captain America, arming her with a shield bearing a giant “C” — as in “copyright.” Aoki sketched hundreds of copyrighted works — a Budweiser beer ad, SpongeBob SquarePants and Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” to name a few — into the book’s narrative, a living exercise in fair use because neither he nor his co-authors obtained permission to use those images. Yet at one point, protagonist Akiko bemoans her inability to purchase a copy of the civil rights documentary “Eyes on the Prize” because it went out of circulation once its producers were unable to afford licensing fees on copyrighted music and footage.

Co-author James Boyle recounts “long, hilarious Skype calls whenever they brainstormed. “Keith’s artistry is a wonderful mixture of allusions to classic comics. It’s a kind of inspired remix — appropriately, because remix is the subject of the comics we’ve worked on together,” says Boyle, referring to the artist’s use of everyday familiar-but-copyrighted images to construct an original narrative.

Aoki, Boyle and Duke senior lecturing fellow Jennifer Jenkins hope to publish their second comic book later this year. Bound by Law? was published in 2006 by Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain.

Three times longer than Bound by Law?, the trio’s second book traces the history of music borrowing, hoping to bring some perspective to today’s technology-infused music wars. Aoki has come a long way from drawing comic strips, mostly unpaid, for New York publications such as East Village Eye, an arts and culture paper. Aoki supported himself as a bike messenger, bartender and construction worker until getting married, and the desire for a stable income led him to enroll in law school. After two years of practicing technology law at a Boston firm, he moved into academia.

Aoki compartmentalizes his artistry into weekends and summers. Weekdays are confined to classroom teaching — “the Cartesian, rational, logical side of life,” he jokes. To download a free copy of Bound by Law? Visit


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