Thursday 6 September 2012

My thoughts on what I call "A Culture of Copying"

Rarely do I go into the messy mine-ridden field of cultural commentary. Please indulge me this one time.
Among the verdicts for the various Apple vs. Samsung lawsuits coming out, other events have been happening in my personal life that have gotten me again pondering why we see so much blatant copying in Korea. It’s unashamed, as in people are surprised when someone points out that copying may be wrong.
I don’t have a pat answer at the end nor anywhere. Let me lay down some graphic examples of unapologetic copying that are but representatives of a sea of copyright infringements, logo hijackings, and downright plagiarism that anyone can see while walking down a street in Seoul.

Let me get all this off my A.D.D.-riddled brain first. The Korean media and netizen response to the California Apple vs. Samsung verdict have predictably defended Samsung. It’s mostly been loud proclamations of psychological projections. They accuse the jury of being overtly nationalist in their decision to side with Apple while also lambasting their “leftist” press for not being nationalist enough–for admitting that Samsung is a bloated behemoth that is so myopically arrogant and institutionally corrupt that it makes the Sopranos make out like a Girl Scout troop. They criticize the idea of a jury itself, one of the longest lived and most cherished foundations of modern law. They pronounce that juries shouldn’t decide tech-heavy cases, ignoring that there were engineers and patent holders on the jury itself that helped educate those that weren’t up on the technology and patent law. Said the head juror retired engineer Velvin Hogan:
We were at a stalemate, but some of the jurors were not sure of the patent prosecution process. Some were not sure of how prior art could either render a patent acceptable or whether it could invalidate it. What we did is we started talking about one and when the day was over and I was at home, thinking about that patent claim by claim, limit by limit, I had what we would call an a-ha moment and I suddenly decided I could defend this if it was my patent…And with that, I took that story back to the jury and laid it out for them. They understood the points I was talking about and then we meticulously went patent by patent and claim by claim against the test that the judge had given us, because each patent had a different legal premise to judge on. We got those all sorted out and decided which ones were valid and which ones were not. [link]
Oh, and I imagine that the judges in the Korean case, untainted by an unwashed jury, had those engineering degrees in their pockets?
What it came down to was not anything that technical. It was memos that basically said that Samsung needed to copy Apple and FAST!

For those who were not here in Korea or have forgotten, let me give a brief history of the smartphone in Korea. The iPhone had already been around for two years before it appeared on Korean shores in 2009. Before then, the average Korean didn’t have Apple on her radar. It was a maker of iPods, which were slowly creeping up on the market share of the popular iRiver MP3 players. People didn’t have Macs. If they did, they were useless because most Korean websites heavily depended on using Microsoft’s defunct ActiveX plug-ins to run them. Some still do, especially for security, even though Microsoft itself has publicly ditched ActiveX.
The Korean mobile makers dominated the Korean marketplace. Nokia was sort of making an appearance, but it was flaccid. Samsung, LG, and company were innovating in making cell phones cuter and fuller of gimmicks, like the unfortunately named Magic Hole. And does anyone remember the craze for the Show phones? They even got K-Pop groups to team up on phone models, like theLollipop model, whose TV campaign was a hit music video from (at the time) fledgling girl group 2NE1 and Big Bang.
The foreign community was plugged into what was going on overseas, and we were begging to get the iPhone in Korea. We’d mention this to Korean friends and co-workers, who responded with puzzled looks.
“What’s an iPhone? What’s so great about it?”
It wasn’t that Apple didn’t want to enter the Korean market. The government had placed protectionist controls to block it out. The iPhone didn’t conform to some outdated data standard that the government required. After a lot of work, this requirement got dropped in 2009. Apple made a carrier partnership with Korea Telecom. The iPhone finally entered the Korean market in late 2009.
This whole time the Korean manufacturers were smug and actually clueless of what was going on in overseas markets. They were smug in the sense that they were banking on Korean nationalism to again support them like they do the car industry. I call it D-War nationalism, after the fervor for the god-awful dragon movie that came out a few years ago that Koreans at the time blindly supported–even giving death threats to a Korean critic who said it wasn’t all that great. The premise is that no matter how shitty the product, Koreans would support it if it was Korean.
Apple burst that bubble.
Koreans were smarter and savvier than Samsung and LG anticipated. The people who only months before scratched their heads when I mentioned the word “iPhone” were coming up to me saying, “Do you know iPhone? Let me show you.”
It killed that myth Korean marketers had so much repeated. Korean consumers were pretty much like consumers anywhere in the world. If something’s good they want it. Nationalism be damned. (to some extent)
This was the situation that Samsung found itself in. The memos brought up during the trial that greatly influenced the jury came from this time. The memos proved they simply weren’t listening. They were so busy trying to copy Nokia that they forgot to copy Apple.
So they quickly got some iPhones, reverse engineered them, put Android on them instead of their poorly developed Bada platform–even though they had before laughed the Android developers so far out of their boardroom that they went to Google. There was a lot of crow being eaten but there was still the classic arrogance combined with the frog-in-the-well world perception that got them in trouble in the first place.

You see, copying is endemic in Korea. Companies have been getting away with it for so long because, really, Korea has been off the radar internationally. No one has paid attention to what Korea has been doing inside Korea, so we have generations of people brought up with the idea that copying successful companies is normal. It’s actually a virtue if it’s in the name of progressing the country or at least the family–of which some see little difference.
I’m also playing with the hypothesis that there’s a little superstition going on there as well. When, say, a pigs feet restaurant does well, other restaurants tend to open up next to it offering the exact same thing, usually at the exact same price. I’m guessing people think there’s some type of magical ju-ju about the location or some magic combination they did to become popular–other than differentiating themselves from the market by making good food.
Here’s a good example.
I received an email from a restaurant owner in Vancouver. He and his partner own a popular sandwich shop called Meat & Bread. They specialize in porchetta sandwiches. If you’re in Vancouver check them out. They’ve been featured on the Food Network, too.

I’m sure the Korean version of this restaurant is good, but do they have to copy it that shamelessly? Is it some superstitious good luck charm? There’s a difference between building on someone else’s idea and just copying someone else’s idea. In fact, many people don’t mind if you copy them if you at least just give them some credit. The Meat & Bread owner mentioned that he only wanted acknowledgement. He wasn’t interested in money or anything like that.
On top of that, when a magazine like Cookand featured this Korean restaurant in an article, they copied and pasted the entire article on their blog, which is highly unethical in web publishing.

Cultural Stockholm Syndrome
I’ve gotten the reaction from folks, “What’s wrong? People do it all the time.”
Just because a lot of people do it doesn’t make it right. Just because other countries do it doesn’t make it right. I think we have all become so jaded from seeing this all the time. I’m guilty of the same. It’s cultural Stockholm Syndrome. We’ve gotten so accustomed to Korea that we’re making excuses for what really is bad behavior. Not cultural differences. Bad behavior.
Actually, my business partner Ms. Kang is upset. She says that this has nothing to do with cultural differences. She grew up in Korea and has occasionally lived overseas. She says that even though Korea has become powerful and successful, there is still a lack of confidence. It’s considered safe to copy. No one teaches in schools that copying is wrong. It’s not considered stealing when one copies someone else’s hard work, be it a restaurant menu and design, a magazine article, or a smartphone.
She told me a story of lifestyle magazine writers and editors getting together in hotel restaurants with a bunch of foreign lifestyle magazines, looking at them not for inspiration, but finding articles to steal and paste and photos to mimic.

An English corporate jargon term has become common in Korean business. Benchmarking. Yet when I am involved with meetings or such when Koreans use that word, they don’t mean it by the original sense of looking at a prime example in a field and testing your product against it. It means looking at a prime example in a field and figuring out how to copy it.
That’s one reason there are a lot of Korean movie posters that look exactly like Hollywood movie posters. Producers and movie companies go to the designers, or the designers show them some examples of other posters, and the suits find a poster they like and want something exactly like that. They don’t want something in that style. They want that movie poster.
A friend of mine told me a story of a job his company did for Samsung. They were creating a website, and the website company was outsourcing my friend’s company for some translation. Samsung later found out that the web design company was outsourcing and then got directly involved. The Samsung guy in charge wanted to use terms that were distinctly Apple’s. They were trying to copy Apple’s website and jargon even though many of those terms were unique to Apple. My friend gently told the quite arrogant Samsung manager that he couldn’t do that. Shrugged him off. The project itself was eventually dropped but not because Samsung was again blatantly copying Apple even against dire warnings.
The K-Pop industry also goes by this model. Check out this list of twenty plagiarized songs. Video blogger Michael Aronson points out a recent example of IU and Fiestar’s “Sea of Moonlight” doing a variation of A-ha’s “Take on Me” and passing it off as an original. And you’d think that IU’s handlers would have learned from the last time. While you’re at it, check out this video, which a Korean court ruled copied a scene from “Final Fantasy VII.”

Plagiarism as Usual

It’s the way business is done in Korea. Japanese and Chinese tourists come here not for the sites but for the imitation Gucci handbags. High school students copy on exams. College students plagiarize their papers from the internet. Professors plagiarize their papers from their undergrads. One of the biggest frustrations I hear from foreign faculty in Korean universities is the amount of unabashed and unashamed plagiarism that goes on. Students really don’t know how to write for themselves. There have been swaths of scandals of people in high positions being caught with forged university degrees (then they use the foreigner distraction). I’ve heard the excuse that in Confucian tradition, students are supposed to copy their teachers and not do anything that involves critical thought. But teachers copying students?
Beyond the fake Louis Vuittons, piracy has also been unapologetic. And it’s bitten Korea in the butt. Because Korea was so notorious for piracy Nintendo made it so that only games made for Korean systems could be played in Korea. No one could pirate games from other countries and sell them in Korea. Which was just a band-aid solution. Buy a Wii at Yongsan Electronics Market, and they ask you if you want it modded to break through this system as casually as if they ask if you want an extended warranty.
This all said, I’m glad that Samsung did get its posterior in gear after the 2009 iPhone disaster. The Galaxy S may be an outright copy of the iPhone 3Gs, but the Galaxy series are wonderful phones. I’m hoping that this verdict has similar results in again shaking up Samsung’s corporate culture (I hadn’t mentioned the masses of executive firings at Samsung and LG after the 2009 iPhone disaster). I wish they’d head on over to Hongdae and pick up some of those talented Hongik University grads so we can really see what really great Korean designers can do.
In the meantime, I’ll sip on my Starpreya or JJ Bean JJ Caffe latte and Kicker candy bar, listening to G-Dragon’s “Heartbreaker” or maybe some Lee Hyori while shopping at TOMMYATKINS and maybe hang out with my friends at Chanel Business Club, the BMW Noraebang, or the Popeye Chicken Hof.

Update: I got linked by the Diplomat!
Zenkimchi Joe is thrilled!