Ruling on photos redefines copyright

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Ruling on photos redefines copyright


The Seoul Central District Court ruled yesterday that Korean Air’s use of an amateur photographer’s image of Solseom, right, did not violate the copyright of Michael Kenna’s version of the same subject taken three years’ prior. Provided by Gallery Kong and Korean Air

“Korean Air has not violated the copyright of Michael Kenna.”

With that judgment by the Seoul Central District Court yesterday - which ruled against Gallery Kong, a Korean agency that represents renowned photographer Michael Kenna - Korea finally clarified a long-standing dispute over landscape photography copyrights.

The issue was over a television advertisement made by Korean Air that used a photograph of Solseom, a small island in Gangwon. Korean Air used the image “Wolcheon-ri - Waiting for Morning” from an amateur’s photograph that was taken in 2010.

However, the image looked very similar to a famous one taken by Kenna, “Pine Trees, Study 1, Wolcheon, Gangwon-do, South Korea, 2007.”

In July, Gallery Kong filed a lawsuit against the conglomerate for “willfully and unfairly using Kenna’s reputation,” saying that choosing an image resembling Kenna’s photo violated his copyright.

But because both photographs are of the same natural landscape, others felt no one could really claim ownership over the subject matter.

Kong Geun-hye, the director of the gallery that brought the lawsuit, insisted that it was wrong for a conglomerate to use a similar photograph when they were aware of the existence of Kenna’s, which she said was “almost identical to the amateur’s photograph.”

Kenna’s photograph is so famous that people now refer to the island as “Solseom” (an abbreviation of the photo’s name in Korean) rather than its original name, “Seokseom.” It’s also true that Kenna’s photograph helped stop the island from becoming a liquefied natural gas plant in 2007.

But Korean Air insisted that such an argument was no different than arguing over the ownership of the island, which is “absurd.” It said the reason why they’ve used the amateur photographer’s work was because it featured “a colorful sunrise and dynamics that do not exist in Kenna’s photograph.”

Expert opinions have been divided. Some photographers, particularly in Korea, insisted that there are many differences between the two, including that one is in color and one is black and white, the sizes and the method of expression. But many international experts said that the two images were too similar and that it looked like the amateur photographer infringed Kenna’s intellectual property rights.

Upon yesterday’s ruling, Gallery Kong said it would appeal.

Kim Hyung-jin, an arts copyright lawyer at the law firm Jeongse, who will be leading the gallery’s appeal, said after yesterday’s ruling that the decision was like “a death penalty for creative artists.”

“If all the assertions made by Korean Air are believed, it’s a collapse of intellectual property rights in Korea,” Kim told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “It’s important to reinterpret or engage in creative thinking when taking photographs of natural landscapes, but this ruling says that people don’t have to make such efforts anymore.”

Kim added that this case is not only an individual fighting against a big corporation but a crisis in the country’s art circle as a whole. “This society will have to think deeply about the country’s creative industries and how such a ruling will affect Korean artists when they are abroad,” said Kim.

Korean Air, however, said in an official statement that the ruling proved “Korean Air has not engaged in any illegal act” and that “Gallery Kong’s arguments are all inappropriate.”

The airline also said it was planning to file a defamation suit against the gallery in order to recover its reputation.


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