The Korea Herald


[Grace Kao] Hybe vs. Ador: Inspiration, imitation and plagiarism

By Korea Herald

Published : April 29, 2024 - 05:31

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Min Hee-jin, CEO of Ador (a subsidiary of Hybe) has accused Hybe and its other subsidiary Belift Labs of plagiarism over the similarity between supergroup NewJeans (Ador) and new girl group Illit (Belift Labs). In turn, Hybe has asked Min Hee-jin to step down and has accused her of “breach of trust” in its press release.

To any casual K-pop fan familiar with both groups, there is little doubt that Illit’s sound and choreography is reminiscent of NewJeans. However, many other new girl groups (not just Illit) also remind me of NewJeans. This is to be expected, since K-pop groups and songs often follow the latest trends. NewJeans is one of the most successful newer K-pop groups. However, like any other pop music act, NewJeans also draws inspiration from earlier groups. It might be hard for us to think of a K-pop group who does not draw inspiration from an earlier source.

Oscar Wilde was not thinking of K-pop when he wrote that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness,” but the sentiment certainly applies. So, how can one determine when any artistic, literary or even academic work is simply inspired by something else or if it has imitated or plagiarized it? These lines can be blurry at best, and with new technologies, it will be increasingly easy to duplicate the style of any type of song or literary work.

I have no insider knowledge of the current situation at Hybe, and I have no desire to comment on it. However, I am a sociologist who reads and writes daily. Academics are inspired by previous scholars while we produce our own work. In academia, we must refer to previous work and cite it when we mention an idea, concept or research finding from it. When we use an exact quote, we use quotation marks and demarcate the page and volume from which it comes. If we replicate an exact quote and do not add quotation marks and acknowledge its source, this constitutes plagiarism because we have taken someone’s work and represented it as our own. In other words, a research article or book requires that we draw inspiration from earlier work, but we must tell the reader exactly which articles and books have inspired us and from which we have reproduced its sections. It also makes academic work difficult to read, because there are cites everywhere.

As a listener of K-pop, I am sympathetic to how much harder it is for these songwriters, producers, stylists, choreographers and artists to cite their influences. Producers and musicians can talk about their favorite artists and mention them by name in an interview. Certainly, if they sample a specific segment of a song or interpolate from it, they can pay royalties for the privilege of using it. Multiple groups and songs can easily use the same royalty-free sample in their songs. This creates songs that sound like each other but are not imitations of each other but rather copies of the original sample that is unknown to its listeners. However, what if groups use the same type of dance steps or wear similar outfits as another group on a television performance? Can they genuinely cite the precise inspiration from each of these sequence of dance steps? What about producers that use certain types of distortions, reverbs or voicings that are reminiscent of producers from other eras… is that inspiration or imitation?

A sample called the “orchestra hit” is an extreme example, but I will use it here. Even if this term is unfamiliar, I’m sure you’ve heard the sound before. This was a sample created from the opening of a late scene in Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” performed in 1910 in Paris. According to a Vox documentary, this sound was recorded for fun by one of the programmers working on the Fairlight CMI in 1975. The Fairlight CMI was the first digital synthesizer with a sequencer with which you could create different notes or pitches from any samples. The orchestra hit (ORCH2) was included in a sample pack and musicians liked it so much that they started using it. It was a favorite in the 1980s. These songs include Janet Jackson’s “When I Think of You,” Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” or New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.” My friend and collaborator Wonseok Lee also told me about “City People” by N.EX.T. (1992), which also uses it.

Does this mean that every pop song from the 1980s to the current era which uses this sound from a synthesizer or Cubase or Ableton ought to credit Stravinsky? Probably not.

In any artistic or literary form, creators are inspired by their predecessors. Sometimes the sources are more proximate, like in K-pop, where the speed of new releases is unparalleled. Other times they come from a more distant source, like the orchestra hit from Stravinsky. In an ideal world, our new creations would include the names of those that inspired it. Poor imitations are likely more prevalent when the pace of production is relentless, as it is in K-pop. Artists need time to think and to rest.

Meanwhile, I look forward to NewJeans’s forthcoming releases, and I congratulate Illit on their appearance on the US Billboard Hot 100. They are the first K-pop group to chart with their debut song. I wish both groups well, and I hope the battles between the executives at Hybe do not hurt these young women.

Grace Kao

Grace Kao is IBM professor of sociology and professor of ethnicity, race and migration at Yale University. The views expressed here are the writer's own. -- Ed.