The Great Wave: what Hokusai’s masterpiece tells us about museums, copyright and online collections today


During the lifetime of Hokusai, copyright legislation did not exist in Japan. Some anti-piracy measures were in place, however.

Honyo nakama (bookshop guilds) were created in Edo, Kyoto and Osaka during the 18th century, with nakami ginmi (guild examiners) capable of police and prosecuting unauthorised reproductions of printed works. Their aim was to regulate works’ manufacture and dissemination – not to safeguard creators’ rights.

John Fiorillo explains:

‘Publishers (hanmoto) or publisher-booksellers (honya) owned woodblocks, not artists, and so the publishers could do as they pleased with the blocks without any involvement of the artist… this principle of ownership was called zôhan (possession of blocks), which implied copyright, ownership of the blocks, and the legal right to publish images or texts from the blocks.’

Great Waves around the world

Today, print impressions of ‘The Great Wave’, each one subtly different in colour and tone, can be found in museum collections around the world (in fact, some institutions have several).