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[IP in Korea] 'Rise of e-sports, YouTube calls for new approach to copyright'

The Korea Herald is publishing a series of interviews with experts in the intellectual property sector. This is the 17th installment. -- Ed.

In an age of technology convergence and interactive communication, it is inevitable that major content platforms such as YouTube should attempt to deviate from the conventional concept of copyright so as to encourage individual creative activities.

Such a flexible approach, however, should never mean lesser recognition or compensation for content creators, especially in industrial sectors where creativity has often been undervalued, according to an expert in copyright and computer game-related laws.

Choi Seung-soo, chairman of the Korea Computer Game Law Association and partner at law firm Jipyong. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Choi Seung-soo, chairman of the Korea Computer Game Law Association and partner at law firm Jipyong. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

“Viewers would be shocked to find out that most of their favorite e-sports YouTube channels are perpetually violating copyright laws by livestreaming their computer game playing scenes,” Choi Seung-soo, chairman of the Korea Computer Game Law Association, told The Korea Herald in an interview.

“If the computer game developing companies were so determined, these YouTubers could end up paying fines and shutting down their channels for illicit transmission and broadcasting of contents.”

Copyright is a comprehensive and powerful set of rights, which includes the right to publish, transmit, broadcast and commercialize a given range of creative contents, but also tends to be underestimated amid the rise of online contents and individual media channels, the lawyer claimed.

Choi, who is also senior attorney and partner at law firm Jipyong, is a prominent figure in the legal circles here not only for his decades-long practice but also for his pioneering career in the entertainment and computer game businesses.

One of the senior lawyer’s headline cases include the dispute concerning the split of K-pop band TVXQ, in which he represented the band’s agency SM Entertainment against three former members -- who later formed a separate group JYJ.

“I have always found it thrilling to blaze a new trail and to be recognized as the ‘first generation’ in everything I do,” Choi said.

It was the combination of such frontier spirit and expertise in intellectual property which made him establish a number of academic organizations, starting with the Korea Entertainment Law Society in 1989. His latest move was the foundation of the Korea Computer Game Association in 2014.

“Due to the complex nature of the industry and the creativity involved, it is in the computer game business that innovation and copyright form the sharpest dilemma,” the expert pointed out.

South Korea’s computer game industry attained 12.2 trillion won ($11.13 billion) in total sales last year, up 12.4 percent from the previous year, according to the Korea Creative Content Agency. Of the yearly total, exports accounted for some 4 trillion won, which was 56 percent of the nation’s entire creative content-related exports.

“Considering the explosive growth of the business, even individual YouTube streamers may be seen to be profiteering from the hidden works of the content providers, game developers and distributers,” Choi said.

“While the industry itself has achieved a drastic growth over the recent decades, however, the economic recognition would often remain with the wrong party, due to a flawed distribution system.”

An example was a local cable television program here which had aired a pro gamer’s StarCraft game scene along with real-time commentaries. Though the Korea e-Sports Association had the broadcasting rights over the program itself, the content creator Blizzard Entertainment raised objection over its lack of consent.

“Despite the involvement of mega-sized player Blizzard, the case ended in settlement without going to court, as is often the case in the computer game-related copyright issues,” Choi said.

One of the reasons which has brought changes to the copyright lawsuit practices was Google‘s operation policy for YouTube, which reflects the data convergence trend of the so-called “fourth industrial revolution,“ he claimed.

“Upon taking over YouTube amid controversies, Google made a set of drastic policy decisions, of which was the ‘opt-out’ method for uploading contents online,” he said.

Instead of the ”opt-in“ way, which would require prior consensus of all the content right-holders, the company chose to encourage speedy updates and distribution, responding to copyright claims with post compensation or take-downs.

”This approach largely accords with the era of convergence, in which nothing can be 100 percent original any more. Everything ‘new’ is built on the ideas and materials of others,“ he said.

While some protection is needed to prevent abuses, policymakers and business operators should grasp that a perfunctory regulatory system will deter innovation and the potential rise of new platforms, according to the lawyer.

”Being a relatively new category of legal right, copyright may actually be reshaped to meet a society‘s needs,” he said.

“Instead of taking the conventional copyright system as it is, we need to constantly study whether the given system is indeed in balance with the fast-changing industrial reality.“

One of the major hurdles to such flexible response is the Korean government‘s bureaucratic stance regarding the computer game business, the lawyer added.

”The computer game business, once promoted as the key growth engine for our economy, is now weighed down with excessive, inconsistent regulations,“ he said.

Such roadblocks have increasingly been leading global publishers to exclude Seoul when launching their new game product over recent years.

”A crucial weakness of bureaucracy is that it views an industry, especially the computer game sector, as object of regulation,“ Choi said.

”A wider variety of policy angles, however, is needed in order to come face to face with the true potentials and problems of the business.”

By Bae Hyun-jung (