K-pop and the Plagiarism Cases Against the Idols

An ongoing high-profile dispute is reminding us of a malady that has long troubled the Korean pop music scene.

Back in 2011, singer-songwriter Kim sin-il filed a lawsuit against music mogul Park Jin-young (a.k.a. JYP, or JY Park), contending that the song, “Someday,” written by Park for singer IU, imitates “To My Man” that Kim himself wrote for Ash in 2005. After both the lower and appellate courts ruled in Kim’s favor, Park appealed again, and now we are awaiting the Supreme Court decision.

Park Jin-young (picture by acrofan.com, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Park Jin-young (picture by acrofan.com, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Unfortunately, this kind of feud is not unusual. Just a year before the case against Park broke out, Lee Hyori found herself in a big controversy. This time, it was the public that noticed the similarity between several songs in her newly released album, “H-Logic,” and certain existing songs. While most of the musicians whose works had allegedly been imitated remained bemused, Lee Hyori’s record label sued the Korean composer known as Bahnus who wrote the seven songs in question, and won the case.

Lee Hyori (picture by acrofan.com, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Lee Hyori (picture by acrofan.com, CC BY-SA 3.0)

In the same year, Korean Music Content Industry Association compiled a list of twenty notable songs accused of plagiarism in the 2000’s. The list includes CNBLUE’s “Loner,” G-Dragon’s “Heartbreaker,” Lee Seung Chul’s “Scream,” Son Dambi‘s “Saturday Night,” Lee Seung Ki‘s “Mask,” and four songs of Lee Hori, three of them from the aforementioned album, “H-logic.”

Apparently, artists do not stop at stealing ideas; they even steal actual tracks from other musicians. Just this year, the punk band Crying Nut filed a lawsuit against CNBLUE, saying that the latter group performed (or lip-synced) over Crying Nut’s track and then included the footage in its DVD. According to an article on an online magazine by Korean Producers Association, performing over other musicians’ tracks is a common practice among Korean underground hip-hop artists.

Naturally, plagiarism does not know national boundaries. The Internet constantly buzzes over similarities between newly released Korean songs and older international hits. Netizens accused Lee Seung-chul’s “Scream” of ripping off Gareth Gates “Listen to my heart,” MC Mong’s “Ice cream” of imitating Black Eyed Pea’s “Where is love,” and Rain’s “Busan woman” of copying Raphael Saadiq’s “Detroit Girl.” In 2009, G-Dragon was in trouble when Sony accused his “Heartbreaker” of plagiarizing Flo Rida’s “Right Round.” (However, EMI, that partly owns the Flo Rida song’s copyrights, did not stand by Sony’s position, and no lawsuit was filed in the end.)

A plagiarism scandal can do serious damage to a musician’s career. The Bahnus incident brought an early retirement to singer Lee Hyori—an innocent victim, according to her advocates. (Her later attempt at a comeback has not been very successful so far.) Lee Seung-chul confessed that he had considered retirement after his plagiarism dispute. Park Jin-young, in denying the allegation made against him, even compared plagiarizing to committing a suicide.

On the other hand, there is an existing concern that plagiarism is not taken seriously enough. According to these critics, plagiarism remains a tempting choice in the current system in which cheaters often earn more in royalties than may lose in penalties.

Experts say that the Korean music industry faces a big challenge building a culture that fosters creativity and originality in an environment ruled by big record labels zealously pursuing big hits.


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