Hollywood Studios Sue 15 South Koreans for Subtitling Their TV Shows Without Permission

Image of Korean language, Image by Flickr User spencer341b (CC BY ND 2.0)

The Korean language. Photo by Flickr user spencer341b. CC BY ND 2.0

Studios including Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox are suing 15 South Koreans for creating their own homemade subtitles in Korean for popular shows in English. The subtitles were most likely written and stored in extension (.smi) files, which are designed to sync with a content file so that the viewer can see the subtitles while watching the show.

The studios contend that the 15 violated copyright because they didn't have permission to subtitle the shows, and that their earnings took a hit because viewers watched shows using unauthorized subtitles, rather than watching the official versions, which aired on Korean TV with professionally made subtitles.

The U.S.-based entertainment companies have hired a Korean law firm to file the suit in local jurisdiction. Under Korean law, these amateur subtitlers could face five years in jail or a five of up to 50 million won (48,600 U.S. dollars).

Some have wondered about the impact the case could have on Korean fandom culture. Ardent fans often create subtitles as a way of showing their affection for their beloved show, and they leave their names, online IDs and email addresses at the end of the subtitles in order to receive feedback from other fans.

Others have pointed out that no matter if the subtitles intended harm or not, the reality is that downloading subtitles easily leads to downloading the whole show without properly paying for it. Yet only one subtitler among those being sued is believed to have created and circulated the subtitles for commercial purposes. 

A net user ID: cryp**** defended the subtitlers in a comment below a related news article:

공짜로 보겠단 말 안했는데 난독증인 분들 많은 듯. 이제 좀 돈될거 같으니까 더 큰 피해를 준 배포자 잡을 노력은 안 하고 잡기 쉬운 자막제작자들부터 고소하는 행동이 마음에 안드는거지 그게 공짜로 보겠단 얘기는 아님.

We did not say we want to watch the shows without paying for those. I see that so many people have a problem understanding what I write. What I am not happy with is their attitude. Initially they let this all happen, but now, as it seems it will make enough money and since it is much harder to catch the distributors, they took an easy step of suing subtitle makers. Actually it is those distributors who cause greater harm. I really don't mean I want to watch those shows at no cost.

Patdaewon, a blogger on search portal Naver, wrote:

수백억원의 수출효과를 노리는 우리의 한류 드라마와 영화가 태국어, 말레아시아어, 중국어 이슬람어 등으로 마구 번역되어서 인터넷에서 100원에 팔리는 현실이 발생한다면 해당 국가의 국민들의 정서를 생각해 줄 수 있을까요? 너무 우리 자신을 합리화하기 위한 견강부회는 이쯤에서 마무리하는 것이 좋을 듯 합니다[…] 우리도 불과 같이 법적대응할 것이 분명하기 때문입니다. 정신적산물인 저작권은 그 원저작자가 외국인이든 한국인이든 모두가 소중하기 때문입니다.

If our own Korean Hallyu soap operas and movies are being translated into Taiwanese, Malaysian, Chinese and Arabic and sold at about 100 won [about 10 U.S. cents] online, how will we react? Will we be able to stand back and say, “It's understandable given that country’s circumstances and context”? Please, can't we just stop using this rhetoric to justify ourselves? […] Because we would also shoot back and take legal measures if the same thing happened to us. Copyright of all creative works, no matter who they belong to, whether it be a foreigner or a Korean, are equally important.

On Twitter, @kingkenny1967 questioned the copyright reasoning:

But my question is why are those subtitles subject to a crackdown? Although I do understand that under this capitalist system, the rich can make up any rules, but strictly speaking, the subtitles themselves are one’s own creation. It is not like people make the exact same subtitles and you need to protect those official subtitles by claiming their own copyright.

Korean law treats subtitles as a secondary creation — a legal category where a parody work [ko] belongs to — and protected under the copyright law but to a limited amount. San Francisco-based blogger Mike Masnick has noted that Korea's copyright laws were recently retooled as part of the country's free trade agreement with the United States. He wrote:

This is not what copyright is supposed to be about, and the fact that it's being considered a criminal action to add subtitles to US soap operas is simply ridiculous. While the potential fine is a lot lower than statutory rates in the US, just the fact that this is considered a “criminal” matter at all, rather than a failure by these Hollywood studios to adequately serve their market, really says an awful lot (and none of it good) about how distorted the debate over copyright has become.

@Kyeolgun summed up the studios’ motive:

I guess it is because the ramification here is “Downloading subtitles” is actually equivalent to “Downloading the video content illegally”.

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