Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Copyright and Other Dilemmas

Image from Donnapie @ Tumblr

When I graduated from college ten years ago with a degree in English, I only knew one thing: I wanted to spend the rest of my life working with books. So far, I’ve managed to do it—but with each passing day, it becomes less and less clear whether my industry will still exist by the time I’m ready to retire. And two reasons why book publishing is on such shaky ground are the erosion of copyright enabled by the digital revolution, and the lack of respect it breeds for the services my employer and I provide.

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that I’m torn when it comes to fansubs. On the one hand, I love them—they’re for the people and by the people, and often far, far superior to the official subtitles. (See, for example, my fawning discussion of the differences between the subtitles on Coffee Prince’s DVD and the ones created by WITH S2.) On the other hand, I see why the networks and their sanctioned international outlets don’t appreciate fansubs. They’re companies just like the one I work at, and they need to make money to survive. When fansubs are easily available, the dramas’ makers lose control of the product they’ve invested in and are less able to recoup the money they’ve spent.

And when that happens, everybody loses: When you can’t find a decent book to read in ten years because everyone’s self-publishing unedited crap on Amazon, don’t come crying to me. I’m going to be too busy working swing shifts at McDonald’s and falling out of America’s ever-dwindling middle class.

But my sympathy for the makers of Kdramas doesn’t mean that I wasn’t horrified to realize that two of my favorite Kdrama sites disappeared earlier this week: MySoju and DramaTic (z”l). There’s some interesting discussion of what happened on last Friday’s Dramabeans open thread (see the posts starting at 35). Presumably, both sites fell victim to complaints about the legality of their subtitles. (Here’s a site that confirms that Drama Fever filed a cease and desist suit against Google, probably as owner of YouTube.)

I’m as guilty of watching illegally streamed video as the next person, but I only do it when I want to watch something that’s not available from a legitimate source. I happily pay my Drama Fever annual fee (a bargain at twice the price) and am also about to pony up so I can use Hulu Plus on my Roku.

Because I’m a mental midget when it comes to techy things like getting subs and video from different sources and making them work together, watching downloaded dramas isn’t the slightest bit of a temptation for me. This means my relationship with DramaTic has largely been as a reader of commentary—he kept me real. It’s easy to get lost in fangirlish OTP obsessiveness and lose light of things like a show’s objective quality and actual, qualitative merit. DramaTic never did that, and although our opinions differ on a lot of fronts (e.g, I ♥ trendies), the context and sense of history provided by that site have made me an infinitely better, more informed viewer of Korean drama.

I can see filing copyright complaints against My Soju: it is to Kdrama what crack dens are to the real world. But DramaTic? Its owner was only posting translated text files, not video. The ugly truth, though, is that both the words and images that make up our dramas belong to their copyright holders, and they can file suit about abuses against either.

The question is, Why should they? A rising tide lifts all boats. Thanks to fansubs, these dramas reach passionate international viewers the television networks themselves aren’t prepared to exploit—and those international viewers do things like buy DVDs, soundtracks, and ridiculous tchotchkes. (You certainly would not find a replica of the necklace Jun Pyo made for Jan Di in my jewelry box. No, you certainly would not.) When someone fansubs a show, it’s a giant advertisement for not just sixteen (or twenty or a hundred) hours of television—it’s an advertisement for an entire genre. Maybe even an entire nation.

This crackdown on grass-roots support for their product is even worse in light of its fundamental hypocrisy: Guess who subbed the show I’m watching on Drama Fever right now? That’s right…WITH S2. That fansub site is credited at the beginning of each and every episode of 9 Ends 2 Outs—and a lot of other shows that Drama Fever continues to stream. They’re benefiting every day from the efforts of some fansubers, yet they turn around and file copyright claims against others. On what planet does that make sense?

In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the state of American popular music in the early 2000s. As that point, it seemed likely that peer-to-peer file trading would wipe out traditional record labels, and maybe even the music industry itself. But after a lot of regrettable fighting against the people they should have been courting—music lovers around the world—the music industry was saved by one thing: the convenience and accessibility of iTunes. Back in the day, I used Napster and Limewire and Pirate Bay just like every other college kid. But now that it’s so incredibly easy and affordable to buy from legitimate sources, why would I bother to download things illegally? 

With the help of its sales network, the music industry made itself indispensable not by crushing the people who loved their product, but by finding a way to work with them. That’s what Drama Fever should be doing right now: providing a service so good, universally accessible, and complete that fansubs wouldn’t be necessary.

As an English-speaking North American viewer, I know I’m incredibly lucky: Korean networks will do practically anything to get their dramas into my hands and on my TV. The potential market here is huge, and just like the purveyors of Kpop, they want a piece of that pie. But for that to happen, they need to realize that biting the hand that feeds them isn’t going to help.

Imagine how much time someone like DramaTic’s webmaster invested in the many, many hours worth of subs he made available at his site. Instead of having websites like his removed from the Internet, the Kdrama Overlords should thank whatever God they pray to every day for their dedicated fans. 

I honestly believe there’s a way for everyone to win here—why not find it?


  1. I had no idea any of this was going on. Guess I've been out of the loop.

    FYI, I am a huge supporter of the publishing industry. I dislike reading electonic books. The feel and smell of a real book can never be beat. And when my house starts to overflow, I just donate the excess to my local library. While I don't have anything against self-publishing, but I hope it never comes to pass that those books are the best I can find. Scary!

    1. Ever since I started obsessively watching Kdramas, I've been marveling at what we get away with online. I think this has mostly been because the language barrier and financial issues prevented legit sources from going after the illegal streamers. But now that Dramafever has money from venture capital types, who knows what's next?

      Yay books! I'm no fan of ebooks either, but I think there's a time and a place for them. (For example, I'm reading Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens right now, and can only crack it open when I have a book rest in place, the dang thing is so long. An ebook version would spare my hands from holding it and my back from lugging it around.) I also don't really have anything against self-publishing, as it's essentially blogging done by smart people who have found a way to make money for their work. But making a truly great book takes many hands, something most self-publishing types don't have access to.

      On the "I'm a total hypocrite" front, have you tried using Paperbackswap.com? Most of my reading material comes from there, with the added bonus of requiring me to get rid of a book for every new book I bring into my house. Somehow, though, I'm still running out of shelving.

    2. I must confess, I have used paperbackswap. The thing is I rarely want to get rid of my books. My hope is that one day, when the kids are out of the house, I can convert one of their bedrooms into a library. Even though that day will not be happening anytime soon, I'm still reluctant to let books go. They build up until I just decide I can't stand the mess anymore and have to clean them out right then and there. Still very selectively, of course. I have lots of books I've read more than once. So if I think I might read it again, it stays.

    3. I've completely rejected the notion that e-books even exist (shhhh, I'd hate to deprive myself of this illusion!). I'm a book-hoarder. I don't buy wallpaper: I buy bookshelves and chronologically or alphabetically order each and every book by category, genre, sub-genre or language.(Ok, my romance collection is in shoeboxes under my bed, but you get the point.) Sometimes I even do them by color ;) Ahem! But yes.. good thing they look pretty because I haven't read more than maybe 5 books in the past year since I discovered Kdrama.. That is sad. But, I think flipping through pages of Korean history books every once in a while makes up for that, right? right?!?

      I've been curious about paperbackswap - but I do my own sort of between friends, and the local used bookstore on the rare occasions I take in a box of books. I usually have at least $30 of working store credit at that place.. which basically means, free books!

    4. I only like ebooks when I am teaching because I can display them on the Smart Board and the kids can interact with them. Otherwise I'm a hard copy person. I don't own an ereader. Though I do love to listen to audio books on my ipod when I'm running.

    5. I was sort of forced to start fresh with my book collection a few years ago: I was living in a tiny apartment when my mother spazzed about having practically every single book I read during my childhood and teen years in her attic, and forced me to get rid of them all. It was so traumatic I actually cried...and then less than a year later, I bought my own spacious condo and suddenly would have had room for all those books I lost to a local charity book sale. At that point, I realized the only way not to have a total nervous breakdown about giving away the books was to stop being romantic about them and only keep the things I truly, truly loved. It's helped my budget on a number of fronts (bookshelves are expensive!), and I'm actually a lot more willing to try books outside of my comfort zone, because I know I'm not making a lifelong commitment to titles I bring home. But that was an extremely long story told for essentially no purpose ;) The moral? I love and frequently use Paperbackswap.com.

      And I'm a total Philistine. My shelving strategy is: If I would I be embarrassed if a stranger knew I read it (e.g., the entire Twilight collection), it goes on the bookshelf in my bedroom. If I could use it to impress someone (e.g., the copy of Anna Karenina it took me 6 months to read), it goes in the living room. And if it's neither embarrassing nor classy (e.g., World War Z), it goes in the hallway. The books in each location are arranged roughly by category and then by size. Which is pathetic, but I can't stand seeing a tiny book sandwiched between two huge books.

      My reading has plummeted since I discovered Kdrama, too I used to read all the time (even when the TV was on), but now I only read right before bed. I tell myself that learning about a new culture is just as cool as reading, but even I don't buy it. ;)

  2. I'm telling you: the only solution is that we learn Korean! Then we can we all move to Korea, start a rooftop apartment compound, buy a TV and drink soju 'til we pass out. After we win the lotto.. I'd share with you guys! Assuming I don't accidentally wad up the winning ticket, Nobuta-style.

    Thanks for the links above too. I had been sorely missing DramaTic, without realizing what had happened - though I hadn't noticed MySoju was also gone. I do remember the music craze, though in those days I didn't have the know-how to illegally download music. Now I do like iTunes, though I'm not a fan of their not carrying enough foreign bands/groups.

    All this does make me a little sad though, and I'm in two moods about it:
    1) Of the dramas and genres that DF does not carry - Watch all I can now (espcially Japanese dramas), before they get taken down. It's a rush! What if I miss the chance to see something amazing, and then it gets lots in the mists of time! or,
    2) Wait five years, and who knows what the drama industry will look like by then. For all we know, DF will be carrying everything, and/or there will be competitors that collectively, will allow everything to be legally viewed by persons such as you and me. Technology makes everything change so fast, it's almost impossible to predict what's going to happen, and how long it will last.

    1. Count me in for the rooftop compound! I'm slowly learning a little Korean thanks to the wonderful talktomeinkorean.com. Hopefully, one of these days I won't have to rely on subs.

    2. 네!!! I'm also up for the rooftop compound, but only if it's of the Coffee Prince/Rooftop Prince variety ;)

      I didn't realize what had happened to DramaTic until someone mentioned it on the Dramabeans open thread. The person who was posting there made it sound as if the website's owner just woke up one day and found it gone without any warning, which is scary and awful. I hope he had his writing backed up.

      I worry that in five years the drama industry will actually be worse for us Americans. Online sources of streaming drama might become outrageously expensive, like our cable network HBO, or instead be available on a pay-per-episode basis, like the new stuff on amazon.com. My drama list is a thousand miles long...I could never afford my Kdrama habit if the pricing wasn't all-you-can-watch.

      And I guess those Japanese dramas are even worse—they already make it so expensive to license their shows that nobody streams them legit. Which is Japan's loss. They could have had our lottery winnings just as easily as Korea, if only they'd reached out to speakers of the English language.

      On the bright side MySoju, like the proverbial post-apocolyptic cockroach it is, is already back online. ::heaving sigh of relief::

    3. Oh is it back??

      I need to start working on my Korean again!! I have been so busy trying to learn the ropes at my new job that I haven't been working on it. I am still going to look into summer teaching programs there.

    4. OMG. If you go to Korea to teach, you better blog the heck out of the experience. I want to know everything, yet have no marketable skills that would get me there.

      I hope the new job is going well

    5. I will let you know if teaching in Korea for the summer works out, and yes I would blog like crazy lol.

      I love everything about my new job!1 Best decision I ever made!

  3. I wondered what happened when I went to DramaTic (not for the subs, but for his commentary which I have to re-read multiple times to understand). And even though I haven't been to MySoju in months, panic literally started to come over me when I thought it was gone forever. It is an odd situation we drama watchers are in. I have my DramaFever and HuluPlus subscription. Before MVIBO implemented the subscription system (and was just KBS World or America or whatever site) I purchased points to watch some dramas. I like to live in the land of the legal but,I do download dramas. Not all, just the ones that I have loved, which are few. I own some DVD copies, but there aren't a lot available on DVD in Region 1 and aren't ridiculously price (which is another conversation entirely). I do sometimes download a drama that I haven't seen and delete it once I have finished it. I do feel some guilt about downloading, but even though dramas have become more accessible to international fans especially since 2009 which is when I started watching, there is still a lot out there not available to us. Fansubs have contributed incredibly to the spread of K-Dramas and Asian dramas in general. I think it would behoove many of these companies to start working with the fansubbers (like Dramafever) instead of against them, although I do understand how they can be so against it. Without the fansubbers, I don't think I would be as interested in dramas as I am and that is because of fansubbers not the big corporations. This is a Variety program example, but thanks to fansubbers, I am able to watch the awesome that is Shinhwa Broadcast and now I am a fan, who will buy their albums, past and future, therefore putting money in the artist and company's pocket. It's an odd circle but a circle nonetheless.

    On a totally different note, you're in publishing!!!!! I envy you SO much. Back in the day I wanted to be a book editor and almost moved out to New York to pursue it, but I ended up moving to Los Angeles instead and doing something totally not related. I am one of those people who buys e-books and physical books. Sometimes you need an actual book in your hands.

    1. I'm the same way with dramas I really love—I want to own them on DVD, so if someday this whole crazy Internet thing fizzles out I won't lose them forever. And I agree about smart companies treating their shows as advertisements for subsidiary products, like albums. Sometimes this can be a nightmare for all involved, but sometimes it can work: It's the difference between Big—which advertised a bunch of camping equipment in a stupid, shoe-horned-in scene that didn't mean anything—and To the Beautiful You—which advertised the same camping equipment in a scene that not only felt appropriate to the story, but also advanced the plot.

      I wish that MVIBO had an option to watch their dramas with commercials instead of having to sign up for a membership. I really want to see a bunch of shows that only they stream, but the thought of paying yet another monthly fee for dramas is frustrating. (And even a couch potato like me couldn't make it through Queen Insoo (50 episodes), Wife's Credentials (16 episodes), and I live in Cheongdam-dong (170 episodes) in one month.)

      I'm in publishing, but not the sexy "Let's give this Stephenie Meyer a shot" kind of publishing—I work on boring books you've almost certainly never heard of, and have never actually set foot in the office of an actual New York publisher. (Actually, I was once in Random House's lobby to meet a friend, but the receptionist wouldn't even let me near the elevator. Which is a sad statement.)

  4. I had seen other bloggers talking about mysoju being gone, which saddens me because it is hard to find jdramas and they had them. A lot of the dramas I watch on Hulu plus were subbed by Viki teams... so yeah you're right they're total hypocrites. I try to avoid the illegal stuff as much as possible primarily because I don't want to get busted or get millions of viruses on my computer. But I don't feel bad when I a currently airing drama on Viki.com because they upload and sub them faster because often times they end up using their subs on Hulu anyway.

    1. I think Hulu and Viki must be legitimately in cahoots—that's a legal site, like Drama Fever. (Which is why they have so many damn viewing restrictions.) I only just realized that Hulu has shows that Drama Fever doesn't. Do you know if they're all from Viki? If so, I might not bother to sign up for Hulu Plus after all, because I can get Viki for free on my TV ;)

      Avoiding the illegal stuff is smart, but it's so hard—especially because there are approximately zero Japanese dramas available legally on the Internet.

    2. How are you getting Viki for free on your TV? May I ask?:)

    3. I have a Google TV set-top box. It's insanely expensive, but wonderful for drama lovers—with it, I can watch almost any streaming video on my TV. It also has Viki, Drama Fever, and Crunchyroll apps. A Kdrama obsession as intense as mine would be almost impossible without it ;)

  5. My first kdrama was Personal Taste on Hulu (Lee Min Ho's exposed collarbone drew my attention...why was this man wearing such an effeminate...blouse, and what's up with the crazed woman next to him?) I watched the entire thing with COMMERCIALS in a marathon! Coffee Prince too... and Playful Kiss, and Bad Love (my first melodrama, during which I almost ripped out all my hair in frustration. This was before I knew what a Korean melodrama was. LOL).... Do you know how long a 1hour 10min drama episode is with commercials? Freaking long! I quickly moved on from Hulu to sites like My Soju and Dramacrazy, but now I do most of my drama watching on Dramafever mostly because it is the most reliable thing to watch with my choppy internet connection and it saves my information for when I get back to my shows.

    I don't ever think kdrama watching will become as expensive as cable or pay per episode shows on itunes or amazon. There just isn't the market for it here. And despite the current soaring popularity of PSY, I doubt the general American public will have the same appetite for kdramas as us kdrama addicts. We are a minority in comparison to the general TV viewing American public even if our numbers are growing. I think we drama addicts sometimes forget the cultural leaps and bounds we had to make to get so in sync with kdramas. I mean there are plenty of people who speak Spanish in the US, but telenovelas are still not popular all over the place - just a few cable channels here and there. Americans like down-home Apple Pie best if you know what I mean.

    I also download OSTs online. ¬¬
    I buy them off of itunes if they are available now. I prefer to buy them because then the track name and song info is not all screwed up and the quality is better, but if I can't find something I will still download it.

    As for the legality issue. It is really difficult. I feel bad, but not that bad. Like you mentioned the overwhelming majority of international kdrama watchers were introduced to kdramas through streaming/downloading/and fansub sites. And IMO, just like digital music, the average person is willing to pay for content if it were made legally available and may likely end up preferring the legal route as I prefer Dramafever over other kdrama sites. If I know a drama is coming to Dramafever, I will even wait for it to debut there to watch it as opposed to watching it elsewhere sooner. The picture will be clearer and the video less choppy.

    But yes, illegal content is still illegal. Even so, when these corporations try to villainize some random purveyor of kdramas, it kinda irks me. I can understand shutting down My Soju, although it makes me sad, but shutting down DramaTic is just being petty and bitter. Going after the little guy. There is no way they can know about DramaTic, but not know about the juggernaut Dramacrazy and I refuse to believe that Dramacrazy is legal...Is it? :S


    1. I watched Time between Dog and Wolf with commercials a few months ago. It's a testament to how great that show is that I stuck with it through the same stupid, frat-boy Mountain Dew ad being aired five times per episode. (Naturally, of course, someone else discovered that it was available legit on Youtube through its original network, but the publicity about it was somewhat lacking. Grr.)

      I almost always watch things on Drama Fever, too. They're more reliable than other streaming sites, legit or not. And I actually really like that new player they're testing out—that's how to increase their market share, not terrorize the fansubbers :b

      I've downloaded OSTs, too. And in fact, am always listening to one that shall not be named downloaded from an extremely popular site that likewise shall not be named. There's a lot of American music on it, though, so I'm continually stunned that the files have been online since 2007 without anyone causing a fuss.

      Dramacrazy is definitely as illegal as they get. It must be run by Julian Assange and Anonymous, considering how these legal complaints seem to slide off it without even making a dent.

  6. anonymous from open thread here ;)

    I think you have missed the final hypocrisy. MisterX (the owner of dramatic)has done subbing for WithS2 in the past and his subs are actually still airing on Dramafever. I'm not trying to obnoxious or anything, but that just sums up the affair in the most poignant way.

    Other than that you have done a great job with this post, that tries to illustrate the issue from all sides. While I can't agree with everything written here, I can fully understand you and this sounds a lot more enlightening than being called thieving pirates.

    Anyway, great post and you've got a new reader.

    p.s.: I am actually an avid reader of real books and not that ebook crap.

    1. Sharing accurate facts is not obnoxious ;) I just didn't want to get too specific about that one case, because the issue is actually bigger than one person—however awesome his work may be. Finding a way to monetize creative output without alienating fans of that output is the biggest conundrum of the modern entertainment industry, as far as I'm concerned.

      Here's hoping that MisterX doesn't abandon his writings about drama just because drama isn't smart enough to appreciate him!

  7. Pandora's Box has been open too long. They let illegal spiral out of control and now everyone relies on illegal or thinks its legal. Almost all my friends who watch K-Drama never knew MySoju or DramaCrazy was illegal, until this week when a lot of these sites started to disappear. A lot of people don't want to buy DVDs or subscribe to legal offerings, since there are free illegal alternatives. Why pay for the milk when you can have the cow and milk for free?

    The comments on hypocrisy is missing the point, entirely. Doesn't DramaFever buy the subtitles from WithS2? Given they are paying for the rights both for the licensing of the series and subtitles, that isn't even equatable to what fansubbers do who have no authorization in the legal or moral terms to do what they do.

    About universal accessibility that is idealism at this stage. That unfortunately doesn't work in business, because sites like DramaFever do not control the content, the producers and broadcast companies do. Besides, even if they would let DramaFever have global access, would DramaFever even be able to pay the licensing costs consistently for all these various shows? In the Japanese DVD industry, the costs of licensing multiple territories become significantly more expensive to acquire (and usually one that does not return the investment by spreading into many other regions for the cost of it. If DramaFever could work out a deal with the Korean companies to expand their reach, they would have already done so, if it made sense to do so.

    1. I have no idea how Drama Fever deals with WITH S2, but if they deal with them at all it must mean that their contracts with the Korean networks include rights to stream the video, but not rights to the networks' English-language subbing, assuming that it exists. Whether the networks understand where Drama Fever got the subs is another question. It might just be that the networks didn't want to bother subbing them themselves, so let Drama Fever use what was available. These days, it seems as if Drama Fever does its own subbing.

      I'm sure that's one of the reasons why Drama Fever is available in North America only—the Korean networks are just figuring out how to reach that market themselves through things like Netflix and MVIBO, so they're happy to essentially sub-contract the work out while they get themselves together. Whether things like Drama Fever as we know it will last after that happens is another question.

  8. Something that is not mentioned in these discussions is sites like MySoju and DramaCrazy are stealing not only the work of the fansubs but also the Intellectual Property (the K-Dramas) and are making money out of stealing both of these, through their "third party ad servers." DramaFever is at least paying legally for both the fansubs and the content. Yet many drama viewers continue to compare these two in the same breath, they ain't the same.

    1. I wonder how much money sites like MySoju and DramaCrazy actually make, once the bills for things like hosting and traffic are paid; it might not be a lot. (Or maybe I'd just rather think of them as noble Robin Hood-types.)

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