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Yi Sang Literary Award organizer cancels this year’s awards, modifies contract terms in response to protests

Writer Yoon Yi-hyung, winner of the 2019 Yi Sang Literary Award (Yonhap)
Writer Yoon Yi-hyung, winner of the 2019 Yi Sang Literary Award (Yonhap)

Munhaksasang, the publishing company that confers South Korea’s prestigious Yi Sang Literary Award, apologized Tuesday for the controversy that emerged when three of this year’s runners-up refused to accept their awards to protest contract terms they deemed unfair.

“We apologize to everyone who was hurt and disappointed by this issue,” Munhaksasang CEO Lim Ji-hyun said in a statement. “We now realized that the biggest problem was our lack of awareness of copyrights.”

Lim also added that the publishing company had decided to cancel this year’s awards and amend the problematic three-year exclusive copyright clause in its contract, seeking only the non-exclusive right to publish the works for one year.

The copyright controversy came to the fore last month when three writers -- Kim Geum-hee, Choi Eun-yeong and Lee Gi-ho -- refused to accept their runner-up awards to protest what they considered the unfair terms of the Yi Sang Literary Award contract. The writers pointed out that the winners, under the terms of the contract, must agree to transfer their copyrights over the winning works to Munhaksasang for three years.

The problem worsened when last year’s top-prize winner, Yoon Yi-hyung, tweeted Friday that she had quit writing, saying she was ashamed of having accepted the Yi Sang Literary Award.

“I would like to return the Yi Sang Literary Award. It is because I recently realized that there was an injustice,” Yoon said on social media. “But it is impossible to return the award now, so I decided to end my writing career as I see that this is the only way to demonstrate my complaint.”

Yoon Yi-hyung’s novel “Their First and Second Cat” (unofficial translation) won last year’s Yi Sang Literary Award.

Yoon’s decision to end her career turned into a movement on social media as Korean writers including Hwang Jung-eun, Choi Eun-mi and Oh Eun posted statements supporting Yoon’s decision. Readers also showed their support with Twitter posts bearing the hashtag #Munhaksasang _Reader_Boycott.

Immediately following the statement of apology, the Korean Publishers Association expressed its regret. “We must change and eliminate old practices that do not reflect the changes in society,” Yoon Chul-ho, head of the Korean Publishers Association, said in a statement. Yoon added that the association would communicate with writers and come up with a meaningful solution.

The Yi Sang Literary Award was launched in 1977 by Munhaksasang. The prize is named after an early 20th-century writer also known as Kim Hae-gyeong, acclaimed for his groundbreaking works.

By Song Seung-hyun (ssh@heraldcorp.com)
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