The Korea Herald


[Yvette Wohn] The need to protect intellectual property in K-pop

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 30, 2024 - 05:30

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All able-bodied South Korean men are obliged by law to serve in the military for a minimum of 18 months. The Camp is a commercial Web and mobile application sanctioned by the country’s Ministry of Defense to enable communication between service members and their families, friends, and loved ones. The app provides photos and updates of the soldiers and allows those “waiting on the outside” to send letters to the soldiers and create online communities.

Active duty soldiers have limited means of connecting with people outside, so for the past few years, the app has been a popular information source and communication tool. During their time of service, soldiers are not permitted to engage in other work, so the app has also been catering to fans of celebrities who are carrying out their mandatory service, as fans are hungry for content and seeking ways to send messages to their idols.

Enter into this scene, the world-famous K-pop group, BTS. Amidst debates about whether or not they should be exempt from their duties because of their contribution to Korea’s global reputation (special exemptions already exist for outstanding athletes and classical musicians, for example), politicians kept avoiding a decision on the socially delicate issue until the group quenched further discussion by announcing that they would enlist. The seven members started voluntary enlistment in 2022 with the oldest member Jin, and its last four members entered last month.

With the enlistment of BTS, the app saw a surge in new user enrollment of unprecedented volume. The company running The Camp boasted about the number of new users, many of whom were from outside of Korea, and did not hesitate to take advantage of the situation by selling unauthorized merchandise, such as teddy bears wearing military uniforms with the members’ names on it.

They also posted pictures of the members in a special “star” section and created online forums for each of the BTS members labeled “official” for BTS fans to converse with each other. While this resulted in huge revenue for the app maker for almost a year, last month, BTS’ management company Hybe sent The Camp a cease-and-desist letter. The military app operator issued an apology and subsequently removed unlicensed BTS-branded merchandise and content.

This is not an isolated incident. With regards to BTS, there are many other examples of unauthorized IP usage, including at least 20 local governments around Korea that use BTS-related content for their own tourism promotions. They range from subtle signage indicating a spot where BTS filmed content, to more overt tributes, such as large murals of members’ portraits, sculptures, and streets named after BTS members.

There are also locations that don’t overtly use BTS logos but are clear references to BTS. For example, in Gangneung, the city reconstructed a bus stop that was temporarily erected for a photoshoot in the same location.

Hybe has started to take action on some of those government organizations. In Samcheok, a seaside city, the local government erected a large 3D sign that says “BTS” using the same font and placed it on the beach to commemorate the spot where the group held photoshoots for their album "Butter," a popular song that hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart.

They also displayed a photograph of BTS on the beach and recreated the photoshoot scene with orange beach parasols and striped chairs to promote it as a tourist attraction. The site has been a pilgrimage destination for BTS fans, but recently Hybe asked that this signage, along with several other unauthorized installations around Korea, be removed, citing protection of artists’ IP.

It remains to be seen where Hybe will draw the line in terms of cracking down on IP infringement and how it will navigate different legal systems outside of Korea. An unauthorized comic book chronicling BTS’s rise to fame that was released recently in the US stirred the wrath of fans who thought it was violating BTS IP, but public figures in the US have little legal protection when it comes to unauthorized biographies. Hybe has yet to make any public statement about this.

IP protection of artists also becomes very complicated when it comes to content produced for non-commercial purposes. For example, BTS fans are famous for fundraising for charitable causes and donating money or services in the name of BTS and many of these activities are conducted independently of Hybe support.

Hopefully, this recent crackdown will raise more awareness of IP for Korean companies in general, especially those in the cultural content industry, such as K-pop and K-dramas. Compared to patent infringement of technology, IP of cultural content has not been treated with the same level of awareness or rigor. As Korea expands its export portfolio from cellphones and cars to include more cultural content, strategic management of IP will be essential to its growth.

Yvette Wohn

Yvette Wohn is a professor of informatics at New Jersey Institute of Technology. -- Ed.