Fans nowadays engage with music in ways that go beyond their interest in music as an art form or entertainment only. They’re also interested in the business of music. That is perhaps even truer in K-pop fandoms.
K-pop fans have a reputation for being passionate, driven, and proactive. They can also be highly business-savvy and enterprising when it comes to supporting their idols, and it is not at all rare that K-pop fans will take the lead or find creative ways to get more opportunities for their idols in uncharted territories. For example, the efforts of the BTS ARMY were a big part of how BTS got more recognition outside Korea, especially in the United States, where the BTS ARMY would self-coordinate projects to convince chain stores to stock BTS albums, for which many other K-pop artists ended up benefiting as well.
These may be but natural traits shared by individuals who happen to form a community around an artist of interest; and of course, not every fan or fandom is like the other. But some particular characteristics of the K-pop industry can contribute to fans developing an additional interest in K-pop matters beyond the music, the videos, and the performances.
For international music fans to whom the Korean language, culture, and K-pop culture specifically, are unfamiliar, it can feel like the entry barrier in K-pop fandoms is higher. However, rather than just pushing these fans away from “stanning” K-pop, the Korean language and the particularities of K-pop can also end up being a positive factor in creating highly-engaged fans. Understanding the Korean language or Korean culture is not necessarily a requirement to be a K-pop fan, but these fans can be more inclined to learn and seek information than the average pop fan who “stans” an artist from a familiar culture and music environment.
As fans fall deeper into the K-pop world, there is a lot of curiosity regarding the relationship between their idols and the K-pop agencies they’re signed to. K-pop companies like SM Entertainment had a determinant role in forming the K-pop scene as it is today, and K-pop companies still have a huge role in artist development and management, to the point that they’re barely called “labels”, but “agencies” instead. A casual listener of American or British pop may not care that much if an artist is signed to Sony, Universal or Warner, but in K-pop, even the less engaged fan probably knows if a K-pop act is signed to SM, HYBE, JYP or YG, for example.
All these circumstances combine for creating fan bases whose interest in the business of music and entertainment is higher than the average pop music fan’s. One of the aspects of the music business that are increasingly attracting K-pop fans is Intellectual Property (IP).
IP encompasses trademarks, patents, designs, and copyrights, among other things. It’s a fundamental part of the music business since it protects rights over music (compositions as well as sound records) and brands. And it’s not an overstatement to say that the K-pop industry is raising the bar for how IP is used to enhance fan experiences, turning designs and patents over merch, lightstick devices and technology into assets. K-pop IP is a prolific field that attracts and affects not just the music executives and the IP rights owners, but the fans as well.
In the last few years, trademark applications and song registrations have become a way for K-pop fans to have early information on K-pop artists’ upcoming projects. Once a K-pop company files a trademark application under the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO) or registers a song at the Korean Music Copyright Association (KOMCA), and once this information becomes available on the public databases’ websites, fans can find it and then they start to speculate about it. This is how many K-pop music releases and new products are discovered first-hand by curious fans with expertise in IP databases.
Trademark ownership is also a topic of interest because of what it means for the future steps of a K-pop artist. As per contractual practices, K-pop companies usually own the trademarks over their acts’ names and related brands. But trademark ownership becomes a complicated topic once an actor’s contract with a K-pop company terminates since the trademark owner can control the rights to use a trademark. Two notable cases around 2016 and 2018 draw attention to this matter: K-pop boy group BEAST deciding to rebrand as “HIGHLIGHT” after their contract termination with CUBE Entertainment, which owned the trademarks over the group’s name; and K-pop girl group T-ARA’s attempts to cancel the trademarks over the group’s name after their contract termination with MBK Entertainment.
In the later years though, there seems to be a shift in how trademark rights are being handled both in the industry and by the Korean IP Office. In 2021, K-pop boy group GOT7 successfully acquired trademark rights over the group’s name through a friendly deal with their former company, JYP Entertainment. The deal can be considered a landmark in K-pop as it suggests a changing pattern from K-pop companies towards their artists’ rights, and of course, it was extremely well received by iGOT7 (the GOT7’s fanbase).
In the same year, just a few months before announcing that the K-pop girl group GFRIEND was disbanding, their agency SOURCE Music filed for trademark applications over the group’s name. Still, these were initially refused by the KIPO. While that did not necessarily mean that GFRIEND would go back to promoting together under this name, the news of the refusal was received by fans as a sign that it could happen.
On another side, some fans want to protect their idols’ brands from being unduly exploited by third parties. That’s what happened in 2021 when the Korean BTS ARMY found out that a cosmetic company filed a trademark application for “Borahae”. This expression is a neologism coined by BTS member V to symbolize the fanbase’s relationship with the music group. The fans in Korea reached out to the trademark Applicant and requested that they’d withdraw the application, and they also reached out to HYBE and Big Hit Music to let them know someone was trying to acquire rights over V’s phrase. As an outcome, the Applicant submitted a request of withdrawal for the trademark Application. This episode is symptomatic of fans’ highly proactive behavior in defense of their idols’ IP, and how IP-protected elements such as names and expressions have great personal meaning for the fans.
This behavior is also found regarding music rights and K-pop copyrights in general. Copyright infringement and/or plagiarism are the subject of many heated debates in K-pop online communities. These can be about K-pop groups/companies “copying” other groups’ “concepts”, sampling, or music plagiarism. A concept itself cannot be protected by copyright, and music plagiarism can be a thoroughly subjective matter. Therefore, debates on K-pop copyrights can sometimes be merely speculative or even become a source of conflict between fandoms. Nevertheless, they spark intriguing discussions on the threshold of originality in art and are yet another indication of how IP is at the center of many concerns from K-pop fans.
But there is also a positive side to K-pop copyrights becoming hot topics in K-pop communities. When a K-pop artist is involved in writing or producing the music they release, it becomes a source of great pride for their fans, and great interest as it provides a chance to get to know the idols’ skills and feelings. Copyright ownership is seen as an artistic achievement. Fans even monitor idols’ song credits at the KOMCA and celebrate milestones such as an idol being selected as a full member of KOMCA. To become a full member, a creator must receive a certain amount of royalties from their copyrighted songs per year, amongst other criteria.
Trademarks and copyrights are the biggest IP types of interest for K-pop fans since they are intrinsically related to K-pop idols’ music and promotions. But the fans keep an eye on other IP moves as well, such as merch design registrations and patented technologies acquisitions by K-pop companies. Technology-related IP is expected to rise in the upcoming years, as blockchain, metaverse and augmented reality are already a part of the business plans and strategies of K-pop companies. Fans are well aware and in pace with these news as they may represent changes in how new K-pop acts debut and how the existing K-pop acts promote their activities and release new products.
IP deeply impacts K-pop culture, and this is why K-pop fans care about IP matters regarding their favorite idols. Also, the modern K-pop fan has access to a great amount of information online. All these circumstances foster an environment where K-pop fans develop some sort of IP expertise. And as K-pop fans also develop a critical and dynamic mindset concerning their idols’ activities, it’s not a stretch to say that they can be considered true stakeholders in the K-pop ecosystem.
Ana Clara Ribeiro
Ana Clara Ribeiro is an attorney licensed in Brazil, a researcher, and an international music writer. She practices Intellectual Property Law with a focus on trademarks and copyrights. As a writer, she was one of the first Brazilians to write about K-pop for international outlets, starting in the blog KultScene in 2017. Since then, she has covered and reviewed K-pop music for Rolling Stone Korea, PopMatters, The Line of Best Fit, Consequence, and more. Her research on IP in the creative industries with a focus on BTS and K-pop was presented at international academic conferences and led her to write articles for World Intellectual Property Organization Magazine and IP Watchdog.