Tuesday, March 12, 2013

When Drama Fever Strikes

There’s a lot more to the Korean drama story than plot twists, broody shower scenes, and chaebols who sweep poor, hardworking girls off their feet. And although this is a blog about Kdrama, the shows themselves aren’t the only things I’m interested in discussing here: There’s also the online fandom that has grown up around them.

Watching Korean drama is a mostly solitary pursuit for me (in spite of my best attempts, I have yet to hook anyone I know in real life). But the more involved I become in the dramaweb, the more I realize that my feelings about the shows I watch are influenced by other people. Take Flower Boy Next Door—I was utterly swept up in the cycle of checking Couch Kimchi for episode stills, browsing Koala’s Playground for early reviews, poring over insanely detailed analysis on Tumblr, and then reading Dramabeans’ long, insightful recaps. Even the Dok Mis among us are never really alone when it comes to Kdrama.

More than any other website I visit (or maintain, even), Dramabeans is the hub of my online drama life. For me at least, it’s more than just another blog—it’s the spine of the Kdrama community. If I hadn’t found it after stumbling across Boys over Flowers on Netflix, I would have shrugged my shoulders and carried on with life, having learned only that Kdrama existed in the world, and that it might be worth watching more.

But the mere existence of a big, constantly updated site like Dramabeans is what brought me into the fold: it legitimized and normalized my preoccupation with Kdrama. Even more than a year later, it’s still my browser’s home page. And if I have time to visit only one website a day, Dramabeans is the one I choose. It’s expansive enough to be complete and informative, but not so expansive that trying to keep up with it would literally be fatal. (Unlike, say, the fun but insanely active kdrama tag on Tumblr.) It tells me what I need to know in the most entertaining way possible, through the voices of people who are smart and funny and insightful about not only Korean culture, but also about so many other things I love—including (but not limited to) storytelling, television, and celebrity.

So like a lot of other Kdrama fans, my hackles went up when I visited Dramabeans on Thursday morning to find a post about legal threats made against the site. Written by Javabeans, the blog’s founder, it read:

Okay, I have to get serious for a moment to address an issue that has just come to our attention. Dramabeans has had its very first DCMA takedown notice delivered, and sadly this is not a “Baby’s first milestone” sort of celebratory event. The notice came with scary legal lingo and accompanying threats to discontinue our hosting service if we don’t comply with the demands to take down our Level 7 Civil Service recaps.

Throughout the post, it was easy to see that she was really upset. And who could blame her? As she and Girlfriday pointed out in one of their amusing podcasts, Dramabeans has been around since 2007. If it were an actual baby (instead of just the metaphorical kind), it would be starting first grade this year. It’s giant and delightfully sprawling, and a lot of people have clearly spent huge chunks of their lives making it wonderful. But when big, well-funded organizations sic lawyers on the average fan, there’s no recourse: You just have to do what they say. The alternative involves a probable shutdown of your site and lots of legal fees.

As a newbie drama watcher, it’s actually hard to
imagine what life was like before Drama Fever was around.

An extra bit of salt in the wound was the source of the threat: Drama Fever, a site that Dramabeans has supported since its inception. I’ve written about Drama Fever a lot here, and have been a premium member since October 2011. During that time, I’ve certainly seen evidence supporting the belief that Drama Fever really might be clueless enough to bite the hand that feeds it: last fall, it spearheaded a witch hunt that resulted in a number of fan-run subbing and streaming sites being removed from the Internet. (This included both My Soju and DramaTic, sites I had long appreciated. DramaTic is back, without his subtitle offerings, in the form of The Vault of Doom. To the best of my knowledge My Soju has never reappeared.)

It goes without saying that dramaweb exploded with rage at the news about Dramabeans, and I’d wager that protests immediately began pouring into Drama Fever’s email. (You can actually read a number of these notes of protest in the Dramabeans comments; they tend to be thoughtful, balanced, and kind, which is pretty rad.)

Within a few hours of the Dramabeans post going up, Drama Fever weighed in on their own blog
It has come to our attention that one of the third parties we use to protect our licensed content inadvertently caused problems for our friends at Dramabeans. We’re very sorry for any inconvenience this might have caused. 
We have taken the necessary steps to reverse any claims made and correct this issue. We hope to continue to have an amiable relationship with Dramabeans, which provides a valuable voice in the community of Korean drama fans.
It’s all well and good that Drama Fever apologized, although I don’t think they had much of a choice; their blog entry is essentially a plea for Dramabeans to call off their fans. When similar charges had been lodged against My Soju and Mr. X’s blog, the fan response was too slow and decentralized to save them. But Dramabeans is too beloved and too obvious a target. (And let’s not forget that they probably haven’t even violated copyright.) 

I’m not sure that forgiveness is in order just because Drama Fever tried to take back their threat and said that they weren’t even involved in the first place. When you’re running a business, you don’t get to claim ignorance and blame things on a third party—the things people do on your behalf are still your responsibility. If Drama Fever really didn’t know this was going to happen, they should have been monitoring their representatives much, much more closely.

I do think it’s unlikely that Drama Fever really meant to hurt Dramabeans, though. The two sites are closely related: Ever since Drama Fever’s website redesign, they’ve been running links to Dramabeans recaps on all their show pages. (See below for a trippy example—the Dramabeans post about Drama Fever’s legal threats actually appeared on Drama Fever’s Level 7 Civil Servant page.) They’ve also featured frequent Dramabeans poster gummimochi on their podcast, and once upon a time purportedly offered special discounts to Dramabeans readers. Drama Fever is by no means a perfect organization, but they’re smart enough to realize that working with the fans is usually more effective than working against them. (I’ve benefitted from this fact myself—as one of the winners of a review contest held on Drama Fever’s blog last summer, I got a significant break on my annual membership fee this year.)

Dramabeans updates on Drama Fever’s “Level 7 Civil Servant” series page.
Hmm...wonder why that image is missing?

So as traumatic as this whole experience may have been for everyone involved, Drambeans was probably always safe. But could this be the beginning of the end for it—and all the other recappers out there?

A quick search of the watchdog website Chilling Effects reveals five pages of Drama Fever-related copyright claims against other websites. As much as we might hate to admit it, most of these cases are probably legitimate: the Internet if full of sites that genuinely infringe on Drama Fever’s legal rights. They either distribute video illegally or provide soft subs, which amount to unauthorized translations of copyrighted works.

(As a point of clarification: even if Drama Fever has the right to cause trouble for sites like My Soju and Mr. X’s blog, I think it’s foolish of them to actually do it. The real way to dominate your field is to be the best player on it, not alienate people who might be your supporters.)  

But all Dramabeans did was post screen grabs as part of episode recaps, not stream video or provide word-for-word translations. It’s hard to believe that this would truly be legally problematic. I’m no lawyer, but I do know that United States law allows for use of copyrighted material in some instances; as other Dramabeans supporters have pointed out, it’s called fair use. From the Copyright Office’s website:

Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Section 107 also sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair.
• The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
• The nature of the copyrighted work
• The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
• The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work 
The distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.”

Recapping pretty clearly fits into the acceptable realms of criticism, comment, and scholarship. I worry about the rest of this information, though: as an ad-supported Website, Dramabeans is using the material in a “commercial nature.” And between the quotations and images in any typical recap, their posts really do borrow substantially from copyrighted material. 

Someone who doesn’t understand the dramaweb could even argue that recaps would hurt the “potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.” What do recaps exist for, if not to make it unnecessary to actually watch the show? Of course, we know better—recaps exist to help us appreciate the shows. They explain things we might not understand on our own, as international viewers who rely on subtitles. They allow us to squee en masse at broody shower scenes. And they draw our attention to series we might have missed. As I’ve said over and over again, Drama Fever should thank their lucky stars that there are people out here interested enough in their product to write and read recaps.

I’m unsure if Drama Fever really could have won a court case against Dramabeans. Ultimately, they didn’t even need to—all they have to do to get their way is to scare us into submission with the occasional threat against something we love.

This particular case had a reasonably happy ending (and inspired some deeply amusing fan art, thanks to Dramabeans’ request for stick figure images for use in future recaps of Level 7 Civil Servant). It still made me contemplate life without Drama Fever, though. Is the value of not supporting a suspect organization worth losing the shows I love so much? I’m not sure, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Drama Fever is the Walmart of the dramaweb: We may not like its business practices, but it’s awfully hard to say no to what it offers.

(P.S.: I swear I’ll stop with all these serious, tl;dr posts next week. I just hate to miss writing about such an important moment in the history of drama fandom, even if everyone else is writing about the same thing.)


  1. I used Drama Fever once (to watch Goong because I couldn't find it anywhere else), but ultimately, I try to avoid it at all costs for these very reasons. Maybe it has something to do with being from the lower class (the bottom of the bottom without being homeless) but I'm not bothered by using "illegal" websites that stream fan-subbed works. Having illegally downloaded albums and individual songs off the internet since I became interested in a significant amount of pop culture (because I have no money), I guess I just became accustomed to the fact that I had to go through a crazy internet search to find what I'm looking for. It's almost like a test for me to see how much I really want to listen to this album or watch this drama. I find hundreds of sites all the time and have to narrow them down to the ones I like the best. Whether it means a higher quality video or better subtitles, how diligently I search sort of shows me how much I want to watch/ how much I love this particular drama. Unfortunately, it also means I've had to put some dramas on hold because a particular episode had seemingly disappeared off the internet. Kim Tak Gu: King of Baking was one of the first Korean dramas I had ever watched (in 8th grade no less) and after school I marathon-ed it until I reached episode 19. Every website I visited with KoB listed with English subtitles either flat out didn't have episode 19 or the video was down. That was 3 years ago. Having moved quite a bit since then (and losing my personal computer to old age), I have never returned to King of Baking. It might work now, but... the ruthless searching that would go with it is a tad too daunting of a task for me, currently.

    And why would you stop with the writing of the "serious, tl;dr" posts?! I love reading them! I may have commitment issues with dramas that have more than 30 episodes but I have never not read something just because it was long. That would be betraying the introspective nerd that is myself.

    1. I think Goong was actually my first Drama Fever experience, too. (From their perspective, maybe there really is something to be said for Drama Fever's attempts to ensure that nobody else carries their signature dramas.)

      And as for Baker King... (I think it's going to be my next drama, in hopes of getting out from under the crushing weight of my FBND-related obsession with Yoon Si Yoon.)

      I know what you mean about experiencing a certain "thrill of the hunt" when stalking dramas out in the wild. Every new segment feels like a personal challenge, and when you find that one piece you're looking for it's a triumph. My fandom-fostered Google skills even serve me on a professional basis—people are always begging me to find them information they need to do their jobs. And I can almost always do it.

      As someone whose livelihood comes from book publishing, I really try to avoid watching pirated dramas. At this point it's starting to feel like my industry is going to survive the transition to all-electronic publishing. But as someone who has the means to pay, I feel like I really should. I definitely appreciate why most people stay away from Drama Fever, though, especially when they give us such good reasons to dislike them. And there's always Viki...

    2. I, unfortunately, am probably not as skilled as I think I came off to be in my above comment. Only being a high school student probably doesn't help. I actually rarely get to watch dramas, as I have to stream them on computers not my own (because my poor little ol' ASUS laptop went kapoot on me from old age. I even think it suffered from Alzheimer's, the poor thing!) I don't exactly have the free time to marathon dramas like I oh so wish I could.

      Maybe it's also because I'm a teenager, but most of my drama watchings have been the fluffy stuff. Or, at least, that's what it seems, from going back and checking My Drama List. The real dark and gritty stuff is amazingly wonderful, but it's too much for my roller coaster emotions run rogue with hormones. That, and I'm a wannabe avid watcher of all Asian dramas, not just Korean. I found Korean dramas because of Japanese dramas. Then, later stumbled across the pure amazing that is the Taiwanese drama Autumn's Concerto. (Loved it so much!) And have watched a few other Taiwanese dramas since (read: like one other drama). So the "thrill of the hunt" isn't as thrilling as I wish it was. It seriously brings about a lot of confusion searching for a drama as someone who barely understands how the internet works, much less which websites are legally streaming subtitled content and which ones have downloaded and subbed pirated videos. Until finding your blog, I didn't realize Drama Crazy was an illegal streaming site.
      Or that that means their anime counterpart is also illegal.

      (Woo~ for naivety. I'm just.. t-too trusting~ a-and give too many feels~ *sob*)

      I actually found Viki because of Drama Crazy... Coincidence? (Actually, yeah, it probably is.)

      If I had the means to pay, grudges against Drama Fever be gone! I would pay for a premium account there and other places as well. But, if I had the means to pay for accounts and such, I think I would've just saved money and applied for the study abroad thing my school has and gone to the great country itself: South Korea. Then, (hopefully, if my brain would comply) I would be living and going to school in South Korea for a semester (or a full year) and I would have learned Korean and I'd just buy the dramas when they came out on DVD and such. All my streaming site problems would be solved. But, that's just the dream of a high schooler with a habit of wanting things financially unavailable. Seriously. It costs, like, 4-5 grand (in American Dollars) just for tuition and such from being a foriegner. Then you have to pay a few 100 for the uniforms and for staying with a host family. Means of transportation to the airport not included. You also have to pay just to submit an application! It's too much. Way too much.

      Thus, I shrug my shoulders and watch pirated dramas. Laws be damned.

    3. Not to crash your dream Hope, but DVD distribution is another problem in all of this. Some dramas are impossible to find on DVD (just Korean, or those with English subtitles). One company that used to sub dramas and distribute them on DVD, no longer does this. And then even if you have a legal DVD, chances are that it is encoded to only play in a specific region. Korea and much of Asia is Region 3, Europe is Region 2, the US and Canada are Region 1. This means that you need to buy an all region DVD player (which is not too pricey luckily). The whole reason comes from countries wanting to make sure that only countries that are licensed/have contracts with them, can sell the DVDs. It's also to make sure that the Box Office can make it's huge profit on big screen screenings (because often movies do not have international releases). Basically, what I am saying is, that the big corporations are trying to protect their money, and it makes it a lot harder for both legal and illegal methods.

    4. Damn. I didn't think about that. Why can't they make all DVD's the same?! They're disks for crying out loud.

      New dream: Just move to South Korea. Sounds so much easier than it actually is, though. But then I'd still have to go to streaming sites to watch Japanese and Taiwanese dramas.

      I don't think anyone wins here, really. There's definitely a market here for dramas (a small one, but still) but the money put into marketing stuff overseas just outweighs the profit in your own country where you know stuff will sell, I guess.

    5. Yeah. These large corporations...and, I could go on. Mr. X wrote an excellent post about all this. I posted a link in a comment below. You should check it out ^^

    6. I haven't been a teenager for many, many years, Hope, but I still prefer fluffy stuff, too. That's one of the reasons why I'm so drawn to Asian dramas—fluff is all but extinct in Western storytelling.

      Sites like Drama Crazy do a good business by making it kind of hard to figure out if they're legal. You're certainly not the first person they've fooled...but the fact that you found Viki through them is yet another argument for a full ecosystem of drama streaming sites, both legal and not-quite-so-legal. The more eyes there are on your product, the more impact that product has. The key is for legal sites to provide a service that's so much better than the Drama Crazies that you'd be crazy to go anywhere else for your drama needs.

      DVDs are kind of a hassle, I think. Even if you can buy what looks like a legit boxed set, I've heard you often get less than what you paid for—like subpar subs and bad video quality. Some Kdramas do make it onto the US-region DVD market. I bought Coffee Prince, for example, and am fairly happy with what I got. The With S2 subs are way, way better than the official ones, though. And there are some region-free DVD players on the market. I've read that some people even have local stores that rent Korean dramas, which would be completely awesome. (If maybe embarrassing. I watch so many dramas that I'd be there every day.)

      I'm fairly internet savvy, but I'll be damned if I can figure out how to download video and soft subs and watch them =X My Internet connection is so slow that downloading takes like a day per episode, and then you have to figure out which subs are a match to your video. ::Amanda's head spins::

    7. Amanda: Hahaha, yeah. WITH S2 subs are some of the best in my opinion. In fact, they were the first subbing squad that I knew the name of. They subbed YB.

      I have a sort of fast internet connection because of the router my dad and sister use. It's supposed to be uber fast and such because it's for gaming or something. I'm not sure about it because I stay away from video games. I really really suck at them. Ever played Mario Brothers on the DS? I died within 3 seconds on the first level in the first world. My sister counted.

      I've never been brave enough to download any dramas, for fear of my parents. I'm banned from using my dad's computer because of my "Korea sites". I dunno. He's scared of YouTube having viruses, so. That and I don't have my own computer. I'm using my mother's right now. Luckily for me, she's not really into using computers, so I get to use it a lot. Yay!

      I think I'd just download hard-subbed videos to avoid that confusion, but they're harder to find, I think.

      dewaanifordrama: Oh yeah, I saw that. But government stuff and economics and math and all that makes MY head spin. Just writing that sentence made me dizzy.

      "These large corporations just want money" said every person I've ever known at least 50 times in their lives. And then they happily shop at Wal-Mart without any concern. I'll try reading the link, it sounds pretty un-confusing. :D

  2. I didn't know about this until I read your post, so thank you for writing this tl;dr entry. I don't care about DramaFever, but I love Dramabeans; if the latter were shut down, a part of my drama-watching experience would be missing and it wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable without getting to read their recaps. I almost always start watching K-dramas only after checking to see if Dramabeans is recapping them, so what you said about needing to watch the dramas in order to know what's going on in the recaps is true.

    1. I really like writing what are essentially Kdrama news stories like this, so I'm glad to hear that there's still room for tl;dr on the internet after all ;)

      I can't imagine that anyone would really want to bring down Dramabeans—Drama Fever benefits from the site just as much as we do. So here's hoping Dramabeans always remains a pillar of the dramaweb...

  3. I just hope the site I'm using to stream (I'm not naming names. They might be after me) won't be taken down. At this point it might. I mean I've seen so many download sites taken down too. I can't even use Dramafever in my country! How ridiculous is that. I think they better start having the site available for every single nation on earth if they want to be the number one online.

    I think, at the end of the day, Dramafever has nothing on Dramabeans. Dramabeans is too big of a Goliath in the international K-drama watching community. There are tons of options in terms of watching a drama, whether legally or otherwise. But there is only one place (okay several, but the Dramabeans team humor can't be beat) to get fresh, insightful look into K-dramas.

    1. With an international fandom like this, it really is tough to serve all the audience who want access to Kdramas. I think the only fix for this problem is to get the Korean networks themselves involved in providing the shows online, instead of some country-specific third party like Drama Fver. I guess that's what they're going for with mVIBO, but they're pretty much failing on that front. I tried to watch the first episode of A Wife's Credentials there but kept getting booted. And if you can't even make the free teaser video work, I'm sure not giving you my money.

      If they didn't know it before, now Drama Fever pretty much has to appreciate that Dramabeans is the biggest player in the English-language Kdrama fandom. After the scare, I bet we'll go a while without anyone else getting a takedown notice.

  4. I never realized so many fans depend on the recaps. I don't use them as I don't want to know about the drama ahead of time. Taking my chances is part of the fun: win some, lose some. I think Dramabeans is an excellent site for those that want that input. I did read their recaps on Coffee Prince after I had seen the drama as I was so addicted to it I had to see it from as many points of view as I could. I rely on DramaFever for most all of the dramas I watch. Since I have the premium account I don't get the commercials and, for the most part, the subbing is good. I do agree about the style of language used sometimes. I can see they are growing into a "business" and branching out with dramas from other countries. I don't bother with all that. If DramaFever doesn't have what I really want to see then I look elsewhere. Viki always has the dramas before Dramafever but the subbing is usually not as good.

    Amanda, I'm glad you have made these points and I'm glad you stand up and say what needs to be said. I value your opinion very much.

    1. The only recaps I ever read are ones for episodes I've already watched. It's amazing what a difference they can make in my understanding of the show—especially when they're good, Dramabeans-caliber recaps. I'm definitely going to have to do some reading for Joseon X-files...between subpar subs and the show's complicated plotting, I sometimes have no idea what's going on =X

      I'm pretty happy with Drama Fever's service, too, but I just wish they would back off when it comes to these legal threats.

  5. Excellent, excellent post. Thank you.

    This whole DF fiasco has been weighing on my mind, even though it's been "amicably resolved." It's left a bad aftertaste in my mouth which is continuing to linger, and which is making me (just momentarily, I hope) want to be less active and less aware of the goings-on in the dramaverse, coz it makes the dramaverse an ugly-looking place instead of the pleasant alternative world to which I escaped.

    I, too, need to rely on fansubs because DF is not available to me where I live, and it upsets me that DF is trying to shut down my sources of kdrama enjoyment, WITHOUT offering me an alternative that I can actually use. I hope they read all the wise words that you and our other blogger friends are putting out there, and stop trying to clamp down on lovers and supporters of kdrama.

    1. The dramaverse isn't an ugly place! Think of all the lovely people out there faithfully blogging to share their thoughts on the shows they love; that's a beautiful thing. We fangirls have to stick together ;)

      I bet we're all safe from Drama Fever for a while now. After a misstep this big, they'll probably lie low until we start to forget about it. (Although I suspect that will be a while this time around—Dramabeans is probably the most beloved English-language site about Korean drama, after all.)

  6. Oh Dramafever... I've gotten around the whole Walmart thing by not shopping there (but only because people keep giving me tons of $5 Target coupons - like that's so much better), but until another source becomes as readily available, no matter how much I might muse on their shifty marketing strategies, I cannot give it up. Plus, it plays better on all of my non-computer drama watching devices than anything else - and I now spend more and more of my time Not on the computer watching things.

    I think recaps themselves are an interesting business. I read them for dramas I've heard are going to be crap, and therefore don't need to bother watching, but still want to know a few more details (just to make sure they're crap), or if I'm watching something current and the recapper is funny. I do that less and less though. The only time I ever bothered to read ever word of a recap is for Answer Me 1997, when I literally didn't get almost every other cultural reference and needed someone to explain why something was funny, or who the cameo people were. Personally though, I prefer reading something's thoughts or analysis at the END of recaps, which on Dramabeans are the only thing I usually bother to read. Still love the site though, for their comic humor, insightful comments and of course news.

  7. Thanks for this article, I figured you were going to talk about this and I'm glad you did because I agree competely. Dramafever making threats to sites that us dramafans love shows that they don't really know the drama community well enough. They better learn to play with others soon, because otherwise they'll be doing more harm to themselves than significantly gaining anything.
    I personally don't use Dramafever, well because I can't - the videos aren't available in my country unfortunately. I do read the Dramafever blog and listen to podcasts sometimes. But Dramabeans, on the other hand, is pretty much my guide to dramas. Whenever I need something good to watch I turn to their ratings page, whenever I don't quite understand what's going on in a drama I go to their recaps, whenever I don't know anything about the cast and staff of an upcoming drama I read what Javabeans and Girlfriday say about them in their casting news posts. For me, Dramabeans is irreplaceable for they give the insights that I couldn't get anywhere else. Plus, the girls do it all with good humor and with style. I believe many other dramafans are with me on this. I am certain that a true beanie would choose Dramabeans over Dramafever any day.

  8. Amanda, thanks for your article. I think some of your questions about copyright, and the commercial aspects of advertising, and other points you raised, have been answered quite elegantly by none other than Mr. X himself in his excellent "Beavergate" piece. It is pure genius: http://vaultofdoom.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/the-yeouido-observer-012-beavergate/ (and super informative).

    1. Thanks for the link! I hadn't read this yet. Mr X always has interesting things to say...

  9. I hate drama fever and I hope and sure they will see their end......

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