BH Discuss: Would Hallyu ever be possible without piracy?

Have you ever watched a K-Drama with fanmade subtitles online? Have you ever streamed a K-pop album uploaded to YouTube by a fan? Have you ever watched a clip of a live music show performances online which wasn’t uploaded by the broadcaster? You probably answered yes to at least one of these questions. All are examples of illegal piracy which has become an increasing problem for media companies around the world.

MelonRampant piracy is a massive headache for the K-pop industry particularly as Korean music streaming services have resorted to selling music at ridiculously low prices to attract pirates to buy music legally. While prices doubled this year, that still brings them up to only one tenth of the cost of iTunes which was enough to turn off many consumers. This lack of profitability is one of the biggest reasons Korea has been pushing Hallyu so much in the first place.

But equally, without international piracy, would Hallyu even exist? Outside of the countries whose broadcasters buy the rights for Korean dramas, for many non-Korean speakers the only way to watch these dramas is by streaming dramas which have been uploaded and subtitled by fans. A huge part of K-pop fandom is a feeling of connection to individual idols largely created by watching fan-subtitled clips of their various variety shows appearances.

win 2It seems many media companies choose to turn a blind eye to much of this piracy but many are starting to crack down on it or offer their own legal alternatives. KBS has started uploading subtitled versions of their shows to YouTube, MNET is streaming more and more of their shows with subtitles through their website and SBS has been cracking down on uploads of Inkigayo performances while providing their own on YouTube. K-pop companies are trying to maximise the revenue they can make from their official YouTube accounts. Dedicated legal video streaming services like DramaFever and strategic partnerships with existing streaming services such as Hulu offer consumers legal alternatives to piracy but most of these services are restricted to certain countries (usually North and/or South America).

As we pointed out in a recent article, Korea reported a surplus of cultural exports for the first time in 2012 i.e. more cultural content was exported that imported, mostly as a result of Hallyu. Yet, undoubtedly even more of this content was consumed in a way which resulted in no return for anyone involved in production. However, on the other hand, for companies without the resources to host and subtitle all this content, fansubbers act as a form of free labour spreading Hallyu across the globe at no cost to its producers. Many of the consumers of this illegal material then go on to spend a lot of money on other content, events and merchandise.

So the question is: could Hallyu ever sustain itself without illegal piracy? Would it be possible for companies to find a legal alternative to much of this piracy which would result in more profit going back into the industry? Does piracy in some forms act as a free form of publicity that companies can capitalise on further down the line?

Most importantly, what kind of legal alternatives would you like to see and how should Korean entertainment companies focus on increasing the amount of legal content consumed overseas?

Related reading

Beyond Hallyu

Culture Wars: Can “Cool Japan” compete with the Korean Wave?

The Troubles of Not Starring in a Korean Drama

Inside Korean Hip Hop: Interview with Dynasty Muzik founder and artists

2NE1 vs. Girls’ Generation: Are we ready for a crossover?

Could Crayon Pop be the new future of K-pop?

Elsewhere on the web

Will saving Korea’s music business end up killing it?

Korea posts 1st surplus in culture account

Let us know your thoughts in the comments! 

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  • Mystisith

    The Hallyu without piracy would be a mini wave. I’m not going to talk about K pop since I know nothing about it but:
    I discovered KDramas 4 years ago, by accident and it was through an illegal streaming site (R.I.PMySoju). I discovered the legal sites much later and started to understand how the “food chain” production-subbers-streamers was working. I’m currently watching 10 KDramas (and doing free promotion for them on twitter, blogs etc…). If I was following the rules: 2 only of those dramas should be accessible in my zone. I am not the one losing money here: If I’m not counted in the stats as a “customer” (with the value attached to that), it’s not my fault. Viki has started to be accessible in Europe and it’s a welcome baby step: If I have the choice, I PREFER to go there. Still, a lot of work before globalisation.

  • Orion

    There would have been no Hallyu without piracy. However, the industries or those stopping them from providing the legal version of things have no excuse anymore. Piracy works, because it makes content available easily, fast and in good quality. The technology is here and legal online downloading and streaming is easy to do and would make the entertainment affordable for many.

    What is not so easy is for the monopoly to be beaten, for corporate dummies to understand why they can’t go back to robbing people blind for content and for these industries and the laws of each country to embrace the fact that this is and should be the future. That customers are no longer willing to pay as much or work so hard to get increasingly poorer in quality entertainment, when they have better and cheaper options available.

    As long as someone’s interests are threatened and the consumers are not taken into account, piracy will exist. People are always willing to pay. Even poor ones will pay. But the price has to match the current economic reality and the entertainment’s quality. The people paying need to be able to access the content fast and participate in the global buzz over it on the internet. As long as companies and laws are not willing to embrace that and offer what consumers demand, piracy won’t stop.

    So yes, Hallyu can survive with a legal alternative to piracy and it could have also risen through one, but as things stand, it would never have become the Hallyu without it. People would have never known the entertainment, bought albums and dramas, merchandise or contributed in the promotion of it online and to other paying customers.

  • TchouTchou


  • mikedo2007

    Yeah this is a pretty interesting article you wrote up. I sort of agreed that piracy may have played a role for Hallyu.

  • ananda anwar

    I can’t imagine my life without video streaming web and those online subtitles. I sincerely appreciate the subbers. I know what I’m doing is one form of piracy but what can I do?! 😀

  • choi tan

    Hallyu would never exist without fansubbing and illegal downloads I reckon, unless MBC, SBS offers online streaming with subtitle on youtube, especially for Infinity Challenge… MBC, thanks for uploading IC shows in youtube but, please sub it.