SEOUL, June 23 (Yonhap) -- Accusations of plagiarism in the Korean pop music scene have always been elusive like a mirage. They come and they go, leaving no technical impact. Stars accused of pilfering keep shining on television, while the talk becomes murmurs and evaporates over time.
That doesn't seem to be the case anymore for Lee Hyo-ri, the queen of K-pop, who recently stepped out and gave a rare nod to the accusations that her fourth album "H-Logic" included copied songs and said she would stop promoting it.
The diva's admission was so unusual for a star that it immediately triggered sympathy as, after all, she was the victim of a sham: Lee bought all seven copied songs from a single composer called Bahnus. Still, the heated debate over Lee's album refuses to subside, adding fuel to the criticism that cases of plagiarism easily slip into oblivion.
"There is a widespread idea among fraudulent songwriters that they can get away once they take money," Baak Eun-sok, a pop music critic, said. "But considering the explosiveness of this case, it is not something that can be let go by dishing Bahnus and asking Lee Hyo-ri to take moral responsibility."
The accusations sprang up on the Internet simultaneously with the album's release in April. On YouTube, music geeks posted files of original songs by musicians from Canada, Britain and Norway among others, each of which almost sounded like exact replicas, some even touting similar titles.
Bahnus, the leader of the little-known songwriters' group Bahnus Vacuum and whose real name is Lee Jae-yong, fought back, saying he wrote the songs several years ago. He even claimed they have been leaked to foreign musicians. He went on to argue that he had documents to back up his copyright, such as recordings of his songs that precede the foreign musicians.
Lee's agency Mnet Media defended Bahnus until a Canadian musician, to whom one of the songs in question belonged, came forward with a statement.
"I was shocked," Stacey Maroske, a member of Cookie Couture, said about Lee's title song "Bring It Back," allegedly copied from the Canadian group's 2008 song, "Boy, Bring It Back."
"It just seems really unfair that this song is being sold on iTunes by an artist who has stolen the song from us. It's plagiarism, and we hope we see justice."
Lee's agency then began an investigation into the accusations. On Sunday, the diva finally broke silence and did something her colleagues have not.
"From the investigation, it was revealed that those songs were not Bahnus'," Lee said on her fan cafe Web site.
Her agency was now contacting the copyrighted musicians, she said, and a criminal complaint will be filed against Bahnus. His passport has been confiscated, according to Lee's agency. Bahnus could not be reached for comment.
For Lee, it was her comeback album after a long period of preparation and a project that she had produced herself when the Korean pop music market was going slow. She sought to reclaim her status as a musician after a long stint with variety shows like "Family Outing," in which the sexy icon had transformed herself into the girl next door who, with no makeup, was less glamorous but more affable.
Lee debuted as a member of the first-generation girl group Finkle in 1998 and is one of the few idol stars who survived after going solo.
"I will take moral responsibility for causing damage to musicians," she said. "Because it's an album in which I put so much of myself in, it's heartbreaking. But it would be my responsibility to straighten things out."
Such a controversy is not the first for Lee. She was mired in similar accusations on her second album, in which "Get Ya" was suspected to be a copy of Britney Spears' "Do Something." The case was reportedly handled through negotiations with the publisher of Spears' song in Seoul at Universal Music Korea.
A popular boy group, CNBLUE, also faces accusations of plagiarism for a title song. A legal battle is underway between the song's composer and an indie band, who claims it was stolen.
Experts blame the lack of a gatekeeping system in the pop music world, and some call for criminal punishment.
Infringement cases can be officially investigated and punished only after copyright holders file a civil or criminal complaint to court or bring the case to the state-run Korea Copyright Commission.
Those convicted are sentenced up to five years in prison or face a fine of up to 50 million won (US$42,000). But almost all cases are handled through informal deals.
Shin Jong-pil, head of the copyright policy division at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said he remembers no case that involved court rulings. He cited only a unnoticeable case in 2006, in which the 1972 phenomenal song by popular singer Cho Yong-pil, "Come Back to Busan Port," made an infringement claim against "Come Back to Chungmu Port" over lyrics.
"There's been almost no case that was handled in court. In most cases, involved parties settle the case by exchanging compensation or royalties," Shin said.
Baak, the music critic, argues such out-of-court settlements have fostered the idea that plagiarism can go unpunished. Regardless of whether complaints are formally filed or not, each infringement case should be taken to court, he insists.
"Those who steal milk powder for their babies are always put on television news. It makes no sense that those stealing what's much more and involves money and fame, called intellectual property, are left unpunished," Baak said.
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