Intellectual property is intellectual problem for content producers

Cho Eun-hwa, the head of the legal team of Kakao Entertainment, speaks at the 2022 Forum on Content Dispute Resolution at Sofitel Ambassador Seoul Hotel in Jamsil, southern Seoul, on Tuesday. [KOCCA]

The local content industry is still struggling with the newer concept of intellectual property (IP) for original content that branches out, according to insiders at the 2022 Forum on Content Dispute Resolution co-hosted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Korea Creative Content Agency and Content Dispute Resolution Committee.

The notion of IP, which has been popping up now and then as webtoons, web novels and books began to be actively adapted on screen, hit the local industry full on following the global success of Netflix’s “Squid Game” (2021).

Although its creator Hwang Dong-hyuk came up with the concept and directed the dystopian hit, the deal with Netflix is that the streaming giant takes charge of both the global distributing rights and the IP of the show, as it shouldered the entire financial responsibility of the original series, which now also includes all of its related content, from merchandise to the upcoming reality show “Squid Game: The Challenge.”

The IPs of webtoons and web novels are now at the center of attention as local production studios deem them as a treasure trove of quality stories that can be turned into movies or dramas. Some of the most popular series that have gone globally viral in recent years were derived from webtoons or web novels, such as JTBC’s “Itaewon Class” (2019) and “Nevertheless” (2021), Netflix series “Sweet Home” (2020), OCN’s “The Uncanny Encounter” (2020-21), tvN’s “What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim” (2018) and “Yumi’s Cells” (2020-21) and SBS’s “Business Proposal” (2022).

Series such as “Itaewon Class,” “The Uncanny Encounter,” “What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim” and “Business Proposal” were adapted from Kakao Entertainment's Kakao Webtoon, which is known to possess over 10,000 IPs of its webtoon and web novels.

“In the past, the majority of webtoons were deemed as OSOU, short for One Source One Use,” said Cho Eun-hwa, the head of the legal team of Kakao Entertainment, at the forum held at Sofitel Ambassador Seoul Hotel in Jamsil, southern Seoul, on Tuesday. “But now, they are labeled as One Source Multi Use, or OSMU, and can be turned into drama series, films, animations and games. It’s only natural that the industry would adapt secondary content from such platforms which already have some guarantee of success from its original content.”

Kakao Entertainment has become a production powerhouse of its own, possessing more than 50 music labels and a dozen actor management companies under its wing.

“One of the most frequent disputes surrounding content production today is between the original IP holder and production studios,” Cho said. “Creators behind the original IPs want the value of their original content to be recognized to the fullest, into which they’ve put their uttermost effort, while, from the studios' profit-seeking perspective, they are jumping into the unknown, betting on big-scale investments for content that may be either a success or a failure.”

Cho gave the example of Kakao TV’s original series “No, Thank You” (2020, 2022), adapted from the highly popular webtoon titled “Myeoneuragi” (2019), which loosely translated to daughter-in-law. The series depicts the unfair realities of married life for Korean women by fronting a newly-wed female protagonist. The webtoon, which was initially posted as a series on Instagram, resonated with married Korean women who clash with their in-laws.

According to Cho, a dispute began when Kakao decided to create another new season of the series. Although the series continues to base its characters around the original webtoon, the plot itself was created by its in-house writers.

“The original writer Soo Shin-ji brought forward claims that she also holds the copyright for Season 2 of the series as it is based off on her characters from the original webtoon,” Cho said. “The studio initially had difficulty evaluating whether another season of the series would also be considered secondary content deriving from the webtoon, but since we are basing the series off of the same characters, we decided to share the profit of Season 2 with Shin as well.”

Cho believes that the ever-evolving pace of the content industry will provide the grounds to secure the rights of IP holders as well.

“The production studios and entertainment companies will try to resolve the issues amicably with IP holders rather than causing controversy because it is more important to release high-quality content when things are settled rather than to spend its energy on legal disputes,” she said.