Copyright Technology, Gangnam Style

The Samsung TV monitor wasn’t particularly large.  But the picture was so sharp that, even from several meters away, you could make out each hair of the perfectly sculpted eyebrows on the perfectly groomed K-Pop starlets performing on the MTV Korea broadcast.  The scene was a casual neighborhood restaurant in Gangnam, the upscale district of Seoul that PSY made world-famous.  The makgeolli (Korean rice wine) flowed freely, if more freely to the locals than to those of us who had flown across many timezones to get there.  We were all celebrating the successful end of ICOTEC, the International Copyright Technology Conference, which attracted 600 attendees earlier this week.

This is what happens when a government not only pays lip service to copyright but also puts its money where its mouth is.  South Korea is in the midst of a perfect storm of growth in digital media: Samsung Galaxy mobile devices everywhere; broadband Internet at speeds several times those available in the west; K-Pop idol factories churning out one international sensation after another.  The media, telecoms, and consumer electronics industries don’t agree on everything (e.g., consumer electronics companies refuse to pay copyright levies on their devices), but they largely cooperate – as their offices sit near one another in Digital Media City, a special district across town from Gangnam that emerged from a landfill site just over a decade ago.  Much of that cooperation is fostered by the government, and it has resulted in a global digital media juggernaut.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST) sponsored ICOTEC, now in its third year.  It was as well organized as any private-sector conference I’ve seen, and admission was free.  The conference program had more emphasis on technology than on law compared to my own Copyright and Technology conferences in New York and London.  That’s fitting because, as I have mentioned, Korea and its Asia-Pacific neighbors produce more innovation in rights technologies (relative to their GDPs) than the traditional content-producing regions of the United States and Europe.  But now Korea is producing technological innovations not just to satisfy the distant demands of western media companies; it’s launching innovative content models and technologies to protect copyright for the benefit of its own multi-billion-dollar content.  As ICOTEC attendees could see, Korea has perhaps the most vibrant rights technologies industry of any single country in the world today.

The Korean government’s own foray into rights technology is particularly interesting:  it operates the Copyright Protection Center (CPC), part of the Korean Federation of Copyright Organizations (known as KOFOCO).  The CPC runs a piracy monitoring system called ICOP — a reverse-engineered acronym for Illegal Copyright Obstruction Program.

ICOP is analogous to private-sector piracy monitoring services such as MarkMonitor, Irdeto/BayTSP, Muso, Ayatii, and various others.  It monitors various types of online services, including P2P file-sharing sites, web portals, “web-hard” (Korea’s equivalent to “cloud storage”) services, torrent sites, and so on.  Like those piracy monitoring services, ICOP uses a combination of techniques including fingerprinting technology and analysis of metadata and information surrounding potentially infringing content on the monitored sites.

ICOP gathers data in real time and sends takedown notices to the sites, which remove the content to avoid action from Korean law enforcement. CPC claims that nearly all of the monitored sites take down the accused content when requested.  The effort also includes crackdowns on physical piracy: CPC employees armed with smartphones use specially-designed apps to photograph sellers of pirated DVDs and CDs on streets, in subway stations, etc.  The apps geo-tag the photos and send them to the CPC in real time, where the data is displayed on maps, analyzed, and passed on to law enforcement for further action.

ICOP is arguably more effective than monitoring efforts elsewhere because it’s better integrated with law enforcement.  Media companies in the west use private-sector piracy monitoring services, which provide data that copyright owners must use to generate takedown notices and initiate litigation and law enforcement actions.  The hands-off approach of western governments fosters competition among piracy monitoring services, which should theoretically lead to more effective technologies.  But the reality has been a limit on revenue opportunities that has led to market consolidation, as many piracy monitoring services have merged, been acquired by larger companies for synergies with other businesses, or just ceased operations.

In contrast, CPC gets 90% of its funding from the Korean government.  It operates on an annual budget of about US $5 Million, which works out to just 9 cents per Korean citizen; the other 10% comes from content industry trade associations.  (By comparison, HADOPI costs the French about 15 cents per citizen per year.)

ICOP’s fingerprinting technology comes from the Electronics Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI), a government-funded research lab.  Although much of the system is automated, the CPC employs 110 people to monitor and report on illegal content on targeted online services.  The employees are disabled citizens who work from their homes.

(The CPC operates completely separately from Korea’s “three strikes” graduated response regime, which, like HADOPI, targets individual downloaders instead of online service operators.  Korea was actually the first country to implement graduated response.)

KOFOCO started ICOP in 2008 in response to the rapidly growing rate of piracy amid an equally rapidly growing content industry in Korea.  CPC estimates that the size of the illegal content market shrank 27.6% between 2011 and 2012 alone, and that the infringement rate dropped 14% in the same time period.

Yet the Korean government doesn’t just focus on copyright enforcement.  MCST supports what is perhaps the world’s leading effort to educate the public about copyright.  It has also expanded the scope of fair use under Korean copyright law, increased access to public-sector content, introduced more cost-efficient legal processes for small infringement claims (for settlements below roughly US $10,000), and dramatically increased the efficiency of music rights licensing.

The ICOTEC conference put all this activity on proud display for attendees and speakers from around the world.  It was a ton of very interesting information.  The K-Pop CD sampler I bought at the airport on my way back should help — as the makgeolli did — to further my understanding of a country whose impact on the global digital media scene will only get bigger and bigger.

My keynote presentation at ICOTEC 2013 is available on SlideShare.  Watch this space for links to other presentations from the conference.

One comment

  1. Great review, thousand thanks. I think Singapore is the next country to move in this direction, IPOS and MDA are becoming very active about it, the difference is that they don’t have (k-pop) or a strong content industry. This document shows that perspective:

    Click to access IP%20HUB%20MASTER%20PLAN%20REPORT%202%20APR%202013.pdf

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