Monday, December 14, 2009

Copyright infringement.

Intellectual property rights. In a sentence? They don't exist.

Koreans have historically done an exceptional job at innovation. Throughout the well-documented portion of Korea's ancient history lies a common theme: Koreans can do it, and they can do it better than you. Let's take a look at the first portion of that theme.

This train of thought can be likened to America's "inalienable rights" creed. We feel that things like religion and self-expression are rights that no one entity owns - therefore we take personal ownership of our own religion and thoughts. I feel that it is one aspect that makes Americans so individualistic. This "nobody owns that right" thought can be applied to innovation for Koreans. They aren't stealing an idea just for the same of hording. They borrow and idea to make it faster, cheaper, and more readily available. Think of it as file-sharing for thoughts.

Take designer clothes. There are huge corporations who make decent money on trademarked logos and mascots such as Disney. Disney-branded clothing is fairly expensive all things considered. I mean, it's just a T-shirt. But it has the lovable cartoon character on it that has international recognition. Thus enters trademarking. Essentially, you can't reproduce an image with Snow White unless you have explicit permission from Disney. After you obtain such permission, a portion of your profits go back to Disney for the right to produce such merchandise.

So what if you cut out the middleman? Make your own T-shirt and sell it for cheaper than the official stuff? Sounds like a financially sound plan, doesn't it? Unfortunately it's also unethical.

However, Korean clothing stores are flooded by such counterfeit goods. So much so that one has to wonder if the "real" stuff is anywhere to be found even if you wanted it. Let's take a look at how things got like this.
Take music for example. In America, we download music legally from online vendors such as Apple's iTunes. Some music is DRM-bound while others are DRM-free. DRM was created in the first place to curb piracy (remember Shawn Fanning and Napster?) but an unfortunate side effect from such anti-piracy measures was in fact more piracy from tech-savvy consumers while law-abiding consumers are treated like criminals when they want to transfer music to another location. This progression is even more exaggerated within the PC gaming community - so much so that publishers are inventing quite restrictive and mind-boggling ways to curb privacy - all with diminishing levels of success (secuROM anyone?).

Well just like anti-smoking campaigns, Americans are told that piracy is a crime and that self-regulation is needed to help keep the cost of production down (think of Piracy: It's a Crime messages that play at the beginning of new DVDs). Most consumers are happy to follow legal routes of media consumption out of either 1) fear or 2) personal ethics.

In Korea, such campaigns don't exist. In fact, such explicit instructions sort of don't exist either - especially for the younger generation. Downloading "free" Korean music is insanely easy on Korean language blogs. When I asked a friend if they had a certain movie, she promptly downloaded the movie guilt-free and price-free. When I asked her if she knew that it was illegal in America do such things, she responded, "Why?"
Hey Jude Gone Wild
It goes back to the inalienable rights. "It's my right to listen to this song and watch this movie by any means necessary." This might not be the explicit thought of those who do so, but either way it doesn't sit well with me. Then again, I'm coming from a different angle. I'd wager that most haven't even taken a close look at the ramifications of downloading music free-of-charge. But I wonder... are we just in a temporary flux when legal actions haven't been set in place yet?

I think back to my grandmother telling me when cigarettes were first marketed no one was informed of any health risks involved. Is this the same type of scenario? Is Korea close behind America in terms of educating consumers but just not there yet? Such a campaign was enacted for Haansoft - the Korean Microsoft - makers of proprietary Korean word processing software. By the end of 2002, Haansoft was on the verge of bankruptcy due to rampant piracy from their new office suite. They innovated their business plan and adapted to their problem, but they were lucky. Illegal replication of their product almost drove them to the point where they couldn't even sustain themselves let alone improve on the product that so many people were using and enjoying.

So it begs the question - do such anti-piracy measures exist in Korea? Is there an organization who enforces such copyright infringements? How do Korean companies like SM and JYPe pay their artists if their isn't a system set in place for legal digital purchases? Do they recoup their losses from live performances alone? What about all the time and money spent in the studio? Maybe they look like rockstars but don't get paid like rockstars? What about filmmakers? Do they get anything from movie theater sales? What do DVD sales look like in Korea? I would love to support my favorite artists and filmmakers as their art is a job. I mean, they gotta eat, too... but how would go about supporting them legally?