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One Trillion Won in One year: Digging into the K-webtoon Market

Recently, Itaewon Class, a drama based on a webtoon, ended in great success, and upcoming dramas that are based on webtoons such as True Beauty and Memorist are attracting a lot of attention. As a result, many people are becoming interested in webtoons, which are the original works of dramas. According to the 2018 Webtoon Usage Survey conducted by Trend Media, 86.3% of respondents answered that they had read webtoons. K-webtoons are where the users increase every year; hence, the Sungkyun Times (SKT) will discuss the general contents of K-webtoons and the direction in which they should move forward.

How Did K-webtoons Succeed?

Webtoon

Webtoon is a compound word of web and cartoon, and it refers to a unique web-cartoon genre that took its recent form in the early 21st century in Korea. Webtoons are a kind of snack culture, which is a new type of cultural consumption that can be easily enjoyed in a short time. In Korea, there are 61 webtoon platforms such as Naver Webtoons, Daum Webtoons, and Kakaopage. God’s Tower and Noblesse are the representative works. In 2020, the Korean webtoon market is expected to be worth an estimated 700 billion won.

Globalized K-webtoons

K-webtoons have succeeded in targeting the global market, where webtoons were accepted as part of the growth of new technologies. Many experts have said that the popularization of mobile devices and the establishment of various genres is one of the key factors for K-webtoons’ success. The number of users of Naver Webtoons reached 60 million all over the world, in September 2019. Also, Lezhin Comics said that it has succeeded in establishing a variety of genres like romance and thrillers in the US markets, which were originally full of one genre - superheroes. Currently, Naver Webtoons provides webtoons translated into six different languages, including English, Chinese, Indonesian, and Japanese, through a platform called Line Webtoons. Line Webtoons were established as pop culture in Southeast Asia, with 16.8 million subscribers in Thailand, and 2.77 million in Indonesia. Southeast Asian countries have imported a lot of content such as dramas and cartoons from East Asia, which made it easy for Southeast Asians to share emotions with current K-webtoons. Thailand has achieved first place in the average mobile internet usage per day, and in Vietnam, 73% of the total population has a smartphone, which has enabled the market size for K-webtoons to become very big. Therefore, in 2019, K-Webtoons earned 1 trillion won in foreign webtoon markets.

Creating New Value with a Variety of Contents

In 2018, Toomics’ Intellectual Property (IP) leader, Na Sang-hyuk, said that the webtoons’ growth rate always maintained two digits except for in 2017, and the acceleration of One-source Multi-use (OSMU) strategy is the key factor which contributed to the webtoon growth. The OSMU strategy refers to the transformation and dramatization of the original webtoons. In the case of Japan, its manga industry size is about 440 billion yen, but the size of the character industry based on the manga is 2.3 trillion yen. The popularity of webtoons makes it easier to create secondary creations like dramas, movies, games, and characters. If a film company makes a movie based on a popular webtoon, it can secure a box office hit, which means it can reduce the risk of a box office failure. Besides this, as Naver Webtoons supports the authors’ second copyright activities, one of the Naver Webtoons’ work, Cheese in the Trap released as a drama and an emoticon in 2016 and a movie in 2018. Also, books and music related to the popular webtoons are enjoyed by many people, too. In the case of Daum Webtoons’ Incomplete Life, which is a story about life and the game of go, the sales of original cartoons increased about 15 times after dramatization, and the sales of the products related to the Go game increased by 137% compared to the previous year.

What Are the Problems Associated with Webtoons?

Ruining the Storyline of the Webtoons

According to Naver, the author’s basic script fee is determined mainly by the number of views. Also, Naver Webtoons said that product placement (PPL) is priced according to the number of view counts and the popularity of webtoons. Therefore, many authors are forced to pursue high viewer counts. However, pursuing excessive views can lower the quality of the story. First, the stories go as the readers want, not as the authors want. With Naver Webtoons’ Gold Spoon, the author had to develop the storylines rapidly due to the demands of the readers, which deteriorated the whole story. Second, authors sometimes pursue excessively violent or sexual content. For example, Naver Webtoons’ Lookism was criticized for its violent portrayals, which hindered readers from persuasively accepting the contents.

Illegal Sites

There are sites where one can see illegally scanned and uploaded previews of webtoons. On those websites, the paid preview services of webtoons are released for free, and it affects the author’s income directly. One author, who made a webtoon from November 2015 to December 2017, said his income fell to one-sixth of the initial year after one of those illegal websites was activated. Some administrators of illegal websites were arrested for the illegal distribution of webtoons, and the amount of predicted damage was more than 200 billion won. Furthermore, Lezhin Comics’ sales were reduced by 29% compared to 2017. The CEO of Naver Webtoons, Kim Jun-goo, said if such situations continue, preview services will be abolished. In addition to preview services, free webtoons could also face problems when they are uploaded on the illegal sites as the prices of PPL is differently applied due to the number of views. Given that the authors of webtoons get profit from the view counts, the income of many authors would decrease. According to the Webtoon Analysis Service (WAS), a webtoon piracy statistics site, in November of 2019, the cumulative amount of damage was 6.48 trillion won. The number of illegally copied webtoon works mounted to 4,966, while the number of platforms that got damaged is 41. Considering the number of webtoon works produced since 2010 is 6,685, about 70% of works were distributed illegally. Several illegal sites are still operating their services at new addresses. The problem for this is that even when an illegal copy operator is arrested, the sentence is so low that people can not feel the alert of illegal distributions. Some operators of illegal websites were only sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Also, the amount of compensation for damage is too low compared to the actual damage.

The Platform on a Power Trip

At the end of November 2019, according to the Webtoon Guide DataBase (DB) service, there were currently 1,210 works and 1,901 authors. The number of platforms available, however, was not enough, so they are pulling a power trip on the authors. For example, a webtoon author Eunsong was excluded from all promotional events after writing an article that the platform which she is working for should improve the working environment for authors. Promotion refers to the exposure on the main page on the platform and selection of event works. When the author is included in the promotion event, readers increase, and profits also increase to two to five times. As the standards of the promotion, however, are not provided, authors could not fight for their rights. Also, the platform may impose penalties for lateness, which are not in the contract. In Lezhin Comics, when an author does not submit a script by 3 p.m. two days before the deadline, the platform took up to 9% of the total monthly revenue of authors. One author, who signed a contract with Lezhin Comics, revealed an e-mail from the platform saying, “Even though there is no paper contract informing about lateness fees, it still has legal effects because lateness fees were informed by e-mail.” In reality, such measures are illegal.

How Should K-webtoons Move Forward

Improving the Working Environment for Authors

First of all, platforms should make specific internal regulations for the authors. The platforms should provide a monthly report about the distribution of profits and notify authors about the laws and terms which are revised. Second, the platforms consider authors’ absences and tardiness unpleasant because these drop the number of views. However, they should guarantee authors’ temporal breaks regularly so that authors can take care of their health. Third, the platform should open a page that contains the stories of successful works and authors. With the help of the platforms, authors can easily create a second creation rather than just ending their first stories. Fourth, multiple editors should be attached to each author to express the author’s various worldviews and genres. If several editors help the author, the planning power and storyline will be better, and consequently, better high-quality webtoons will be created. Fifth, the platform should necessarily protect the copyright of authors by making it easy to report illegal webtoon sites. Currently, according to the Copyright Act Article 103, reporting copyright infringement without a legitimate right, people who reported an issue should be compensated for the damage. It makes it hard for individual readers to report illegal sites because they do not have rights. Therefore, platforms should grant the rights to readers to report copyright infringements.

Making Monthly Payment System for Webtoons

Since the late 2000s, downloading movies and dramas have been prevalent on many illegal video websites. At that time, several new forms of platforms, such as Netflix, came up with a monthly payment system. Unlike the prospect that insisted such websites will make it more difficult for customers to pay for videos, the number of people using the monthly payment system has increased. In fact, with Netflix, the number of users increased by 274% in 2018. In Korea, the number of people who use the monthly payment system was expected to reach about 900,000, and the payment per month has amounted to 11.7 billion won. As the number of customers and monthly payments keep increasing, it seems that the number of illegal downloads of videos has decreased. This monthly payment system has been used in webtoon platforms, too. K-Toons allowed people who have paid 9,900 won to watch webtoons in April 2019. As subscribers’ content consumption preferences have diversified, the monthly payment system will help subscribers settle on the platform. Not only that, but the activation of illegal sites will also decrease as the video market did.

이채림  leecl3524@naver.com

<저작권자 © THE SUNGKYUN TIMES, 무단 전재 및 재배포 금지>

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