By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, July 12 (Yonhap) -- Visual storytelling skills are essential to become a professional webtoon artist, but advancing artificial intelligence (AI) technology is now capable of creating images and text, and challenging the industry in a fundamental way.
Webtoons, a type of digital comics read on smartphones, tablets and PCs, have emerged as a new frontier in global mobile content, as they are easier to produce and distribute than traditional paper comics.
While a new generation of webtoon artists use apps for illustration instead of pens and brushes used by traditional cartoonists, they are now perplexed over whether to embrace generative AI-powered tools or boycott them to defend their turf.
At the core of the debate lies this question: Will AI transform or disrupt the industry?
Proponents support the use of AI tools to reduce webtoon artists' heavy workload and lower barriers for newcomers with creative ideas, while opponents express concerns over the originality of AI-generated images and copyright infringement.
In line with the latest trend, local big tech companies Naver Corp. and Kakao Corp. have rolled out new AI-powered services by utilizing a vast amount of images available on their platforms.
In 2021, Naver Webtoon, the nation's leading webtoon platform, released "Webtoon AI Painter," an automated digital painting software, to allow beginners to create their own webtoons and help experts save time.
The company has also been developing "Webtoon Me Project," which applies deep learning technology to convert photos and live-action images into webtoon characters and backgrounds.
In October, Kakao Brain, Kakao's AI arm, introduced "B^ DISCOVER," an image creating app powered by generative AI model Karlo, and in March unveiled the open beta service of its web version, "B^ EDIT."
Webtoon creators and cartoonists showed mixed reactions over the latest technology.
Veteran cartoonist Lee Hyun-se has been collaborating with Jaedam Media, a local cartoon company, since October to make AI study over 4,000 cartoons he has created for 44 years. By doing so, the generative AI engine will be able to generate cartoons in Lee's drawing style, according to the company.
Debuted in 1978, the 67-year-old Lee is one of the leading cartoonists of his generation known for several hit paper comic series, including "A Daunting Team" (1982), "Nambul: War Stories" (1993) and "Armageddon" (1995).
Lee acknowledged the benefits of using AI tools to enhance creators' productivity and expressed hope that the AI project would able to create his style of works in the future.
"Screen tones were used to create background effects during the era of paper comics, and 3D tools emerged in the digital comics era. There were concerns that the artists would disappear, but they overcame them all," Lee said during a comics forum in October. "I think AI will eventually become a creative tool for artists."
While Lee's AI project has been under way with permission from the copyright owner, other webtoon artists express concerns that the AI learning process could possibly infringe upon their copyrights.
Opponents argue AI images are susceptible to plagiarism accusations, as AI searches and synthesizes existing images from a vast collection of data without the consent of the original creators.
Their concerns were on public display when Naver Webtoon's section for amateur cartoonists was flooded with "AI Webtoon Boycott" logos in early May, with the support of over 200 cartoonists.
The participating artists raised concerns about the potential use of their works as AI training data, citing Naver Webtoon's terms and conditions that state user-uploaded posts may be utilized for research purposes related to its services.
In the face of strong opposition, Naver clarified that the terms and conditions were not specifically intended for AI training and said it will exclude AI works from its webtoon competition.
Industry watchers say the debate over AI use in webtoons comes at a timely moment, as social consensus is needed to come up with relevant regulations to deal with copyright and ethics issues for the sector.
Han Chang-wan, a professor at Sejong University's Department of Comics and Animation Tech, said the use of AI tools will be an unstoppable trend down the road and the question at the center should be how to use it.
"Even if we pile up barriers, AI will become the mainstream trend. If that is the case, we should consider how to effectively utilize AI in the field of creative work," Han said during a forum in May.
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