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[Feature] Caught between plagiarism and 'referencing'

Experts believe K-pop’s long-standing custom of excessive referencing led to recent plagiarism controversy

“You Heeyul’s Sketchbook” (KBS)
“You Heeyul’s Sketchbook” (KBS)

Though renowned South Korean singer-songwriter You Hee-yul issued multiple apologies and has stepped down from the KBS music program “You Heeyul’s Sketchbook,” a heated debate over plagiarism claims is unlikely to die down anytime soon as more claims of plagiarism by K-pop artists surface.

The controversy erupted in mid-June, when a post surfaced online claiming that You’s 2021 track “A Very Private Night” felt almost identical to Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Aqua.”

After reviewing the allegations, You and his record label Antenna Music announced in an official statement that the main themes of the two songs were alike and that You could not deny the two songs’ resemblance.

The controversy seemed settled after Sakamoto responded that the similarities in the two pieces were not of the level that would require legal action to protect his piece.

But public anger grew as a number of You’s songs came under scrutiny, including “Happy Birthday to You” (2002) and “Please Don’t Go My Girl” (2013), among others.

Another veteran singer-songwriter Lee Juck and up-and-coming star Lee Mu-jin also came under fire for alleged plagiarism involving their songs “Lie Lie Lie” (2013) and “Traffic Light” (2021), respectively.

The artists’ agencies denied the allegations, claiming the songs are unrelated to any of the plagiarism controversies.

Long-standing custom

It is no secret that the Korean music industry was greatly influenced by those of the US and Japan. Composers and artists have freely talked about how they studied Western and Japanese music to produce trendy sounds in the past.

Indeed, the music industry in many countries, including South Korea, developed through studying music elsewhere.

Experts agree that it may be impossible to create completely new, original sounds.

“’Music that sounds like Western pop’ was huge praise that a song could receive from both experts and the public up until several years ago, so referencing was a usual practice in the past,” a composer who wished to remain anonymous said.

Pop music critic Kang Il-kwon believes that such practices may have led artists to become a little callous with their creative process.

“No one denies the existence of sampling and referencing. There’s always a forerunner who sets a trend and others are greatly influenced by it. But a problem arises when these methods are used excessively,” Kang told The Korea Herald.

“If an artist is inspired by a certain music genre, mood, style or artist, it may result in the creation of similar music. But referencing a specific song could be a problem,” he added.

Pop music critic Lee Dae-hwa emphasized the responsibility of the artist.

“I agree that musicians can end up using similar words or expressions. But the creators need to be more sensitive and strict about censorship, when they are working with a similar theme and subject,” Lee explained.

Legal approach to plagiarism

Plagiarism allegations involving K-pop were first raised in the 1990s but a lack of firm legal actions have allowed the problem to fester.

While plagiarism is considered a serious felony in the West, where legal wrangling can take several years, the South Korean legal sector does not give plagiarism much gravity.

“Many people believe that taking legal action will not solve the problem. But legislating a new law that makes the defendant pay punitive damages for plagiarism, per se, would make a huge significance,” music critic Kang said.

Explaining how the 2015 plagiarism case between star producer Park Jin-young, widely known as JYP, and composer Kim Shin-il ended with a reconciliation recommendation by the court, Kang said that the Korean legal system needs to heighten its awareness on plagiarism matters.

Meanwhile, pop music critic Hwang Sun-up believed that subjective views and impressions make a legal approach to copyright infringement in music difficult compared to other sectors.

“Melodies and chords aside, there are many other elements that make up music. It would be nice to have a clear standard and quantitative measure, but they are tough to find in music. As such approaches can limit creativity, finding an agreement or legal standard is a difficult task,” Hwang told The Korea Herald.

‘Unconscious plagiarism’

As new technologies develop and change the way we enjoy culture, many people believe that musicians can be influenced by other songs without being aware of it.

You said in his official statement that he was a longtime fan of Sakamoto and his music must have unconsciously been on his mind, leading him to write a song in a similar manner.

Believing that the artists start their creative activities after being impressed, inspired and influenced from somewhere, the 36-year-old singer-songwriter Park Sae-byul addressed in an online post that unconscious plagiarism is a reason why plagiarism is a debatable issue.

Music critic Kang believed that acknowledging unconscious plagiarism can be dangerous.

“Some people say that these issues should be left to the creators’ conscience. But I believe those opinions are abstract and naive,” the critic added.

“Only the artist knows the truth about the subconscious theft. I believe that defending the artist with the likelihood of unconscious copying is not persuasive,” the critic added.

Meanwhile, music critic Lee acknowledged the possibility of writing a similar song without listening or being inspired by the original track. But he emphasized that many judges ruled in favor of the original creators, including George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” copyright case in 1971.

While Harrison admitted that he was familiar with the original song “He’s So Fine,” a 1963 hit for the Chiffons, the songwriter testified that he was not aware of the similarity between the two songs when he wrote the piece.

Though the judge felt that Harrison did not deliberately use the music of “He’s So Fine,” the court ruled that the songs are, in musical terms, virtually identical.

“If the artists who are involved in a copyright scandal cannot provide concrete evidence, then I think we have to respect the previous decisions from foreign copyright cases,” Lee said.

Explaining how Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke and rapper T.I. were ordered to pay a total of nearly $5 million to Marvin Gaye’s family for the similarities between their song “Blurred Lines” (2013) and Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up,” Kang believed that listeners see the court’s decision and the artist’s reputation separately, if the songs are truly not plagiarized.

According to the critic, though the judge ruled in favor of Gaye’s family after Thicke and Williams’ tried to argue that their song did not infringe copyright, fans and the media did not stigmatize the artists with the plagiarism, because many agree that the song evoked the mood of Gaye’s song without directly plagiarizing it.

“A copyright infringement case may be a legal battle between the artist and the original publisher. But, in the end, everything comes down to public opinion making the ‘final judgement,’” Kang told The Korea Herald.

By Lee Si-jin (
Korea Herald daum