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Korean Song-Swap Creators Indicted

Internet song-sharing software is downloaded and enjoyed by millions of music fans and becomes the talk of the nation. Record labels complain and seek to punish the program’s creators for allegedly encouraging music piracy.

So it goes for Soribada, or “Sea of Sound,” South Korea’s answer to Napster.

Except instead of facing a lawsuit, the two U.S.-educated brothers who authored the file-swapping program are in deeper trouble. Yang Jung-hwan, 28, and his 32-year-old brother Yang Il-hwan were indicted Sunday on criminal charges of copyright violation.

The Yang brothers, who face up to five years in jail and up to $38,500 in fines if convicted, are fighting the charges.

“We aren’t gangsters,” said Jung-hwan, who lives and works with his brother in their parents’ apartment and who majored in computer science at Columbia University in New York. Il-hwan studied the same at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., “We wanted South Korea to have its own Napster.”

Unlike Napster, the Soribada software does not rely on central servers to index the files that users share. Similar to the Gnutella program, the Korean-language program enables users to tap into an ever-changing peer-to-peer network with other song-swappers, search each others’ computers for MP3 music files, and download them.

Launched a year ago, Soribada was bound to be a hit: nearly half of South Korea’s 46 million people access the Internet, one of the world’s highest rates, and high-speed connections that enable a 10-second file transfer for a typical song are widespread.

The Yang brothers deny that their software can be held accountable for copyright violations. It only provides channels of communication, and does not control or monitor users’ activities, they say.

“If someone leaks classified secret over the phone, does that make the telephone company an accomplice?” argues Il-hwan.

The duo has hired one of South Korea’s largest law firms, Bae, Kim & Lee, to represent them in the case. They deny that Soribada discourages people from buying music CDs or tapes.

The Recording Industry Association of Korea, a lobby of 133 music labels that sought the indictment, begs to differ. It estimates that local labels lost $154 million in album sales last year based on Soribada’s 4.5 million registered users.

But there is no indication of an overall decline in music sales from 1999 to 2000. The industry says album sales in South Korea totaled $315 million in 2000, up from $292 million the previous year.

“Soribada is probably affecting our business, but there is no concrete evidence,” said Cho Jin-bae, who handles online marketing at the Seoul office of the EMI record label.

Like the people who run Napster, which a U.S. judge has ordered to block users from sharing pirated songs in a lawsuit brought by the major music labels, the Yang brothers have offered to transform Soribada into a paid service. The Korean recording association insists that Soribada shut down before any negotiations.

“The Napster ruling notes the service’s responsibility over its users’ copyright violations,” said association spokesman Park Ki-young.

The Yang brothers currently live off fees paid by MP3-player makers who advertise on Soribada’s home page. They also operate Sorinara, a Web site that distributes free-of-charge MP3 player software they developed.

Asked how they are doing financially, they said they earn “what most office workers make.”

The Yang duo work mostly at night on two desktop computers they assembled. During the day, they are given to lounging in T-shirts and shorts in their eight-floor apartment in Bundang, a satellite city south of Seoul.

“We just hoped they would get a job like everyone else, go to work in the morning and come home at night. But now we’re very proud of them,” said their mother, Kil Hang-young.

Whatever happens to the Yangs, free song-sharing looks likely to remain a staple of the Internet in South Korea.

One Korean-language song-swap service, Orangeland, piggybacks on instant-messaging services, allowing users of the same chatting site to share files.

The outcome of the Soribada case could determine whether local labels file complaints against Orangeland.

Napster’s song-trading network, meanwhile, has been offline since July 2, when the California company took down the system saying it needed to improve filters.

Despite promises by the major music labels to debut for-pay online music services this fall, Internet users around the globe continue to flock to free peer-to-peer services.

“You’d be a fool to buy CDs when you can get songs on the Internet for free,” said 17-year-old Lee Yong-suk, bobbing his head and swinging his shoulders while listening to South Korea’s No. 1 chart hit, “Already One Year” at an Internet cafe in Seoul.

Of course Lee found the love song, by a male duo called “Brown Eyes”, using Soribada.

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