This is a shortened and slightly altered English version of a German blog post at netzpolitik.org.
The video “Gangnam Style” by the Korean rapper Psy is now the most-watched YouTube clip ever with about 870 million views and counting. And while the official version is blocked in the German YouTube version due to the ongoing copyright struggle between YouTube and the German collecting society GEMA (see “Cracks in the Content Coalition“), there are some unblocked copies available at YouTube, as well; besides, browser extensions such as YouTube Unblocker allow watching the original version even in Germany.
The viral success of Gangnam Style not only made Psy world-famous but had also further consequences, as is documented on the Wikipedia page on the “Gangnam Style phenomenon“:
In 2012, the South Korean government announced that “Gangnam Style” had brought in $13.4 million to the country’s audio sector. [...] The British multinational grocery and retailer Tesco reported that its total sales of Korean food had more than doubled as a result of the popularity of “Gangnam Style”.
Gangnam Style has not been the first but the by far most successful K-Pop hit in recent history. In spite (or maybe to a certain degree: because of) being available for free online, the song reached No. 1 on many national charts, including the UK and Germany.
With regard to copyright and copyright markets, the Gangnam phenomenon is instructive in several regards. Obvisouly, Gangnam Style’s success does not depend on strict enforcement of copyrights. Quite on the contrary, to a large degree the success relies on effectively waiving copyright enforcement – with regard to both the distribution of the original video and the production and dissemination of parodies and remixes. However, abstaining from enforcing copyrights does not automatically lead to public access to derivative works. For example, most of the numerous Gangnam Style remixes are blocked for German YouTube users. Ironically, Gangnam Style Hitler featured below is an exception to this rule:
Abstaining from enforcing copyright is critical for the viral success of Gangnam Style. Even in the US, many of the Gangnam remixes are technically illegal since they do not fall under the Fair Use clause, as is explained by Deborah L. Jacobs at Forbes.com:
A parody is a work that imitates the characteristic style of another artist or his work for comic effect or ridicule. Many of the video remakes of Gangnam Style are true parodies in that they poke fun at the Gangnam Style video and song, such as the ones that change the lyrics to “Oppa Klingon style” or “I got no style” or the ones that creatively mimic Psy’s original scenes in a comical way. On the other hand, many of the remakes are not actually true parodies. A bunch of Navy guys dancing to the original Gangnam Style song does not poke fun at the song or the video (the song and the video have separate copyright protection). They are using the original song for the value of the song itself, rather than transforming it in such a way as to jab at it. These remakes may be funny simply because the guys can’t dance, but they are not parodies.
Using a Creative Commons license would have been a way to legalize such remixes up front. Of course, Gangnam Style does not prove that waiving copyright enforcement guarantees success – in this and other similar cases (e.g. Chris Brown’s Forever) abstaining from enforcement was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for viral success (see also: “Viral Web Videos and Blocked Talent“). At the same time, the Gangnam example illustrates that cultural markets follow blockbuster logics even aside from copyright: attention is what matters. And attention lies at the heart of making profits in many different ways, from selling records to concert tickets.
Actually, blockbuster hits such as Gangnam Style lead to profits not only for those who had previously invested into the artist but for others in the industry as well. In the case of Gangnam Style, USA Today reports that the hit “puts Seoul on the travel map“:
Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district has gotten world-wide attention, thanks to the Gangnam Style music video, which at last count had tallied more than 845 million hits on YouTube. Gangnam means ’south of the river.’ The area is home to many of Korea’s major corporations, but also sports a vibrant nightlife.
And while the K-pop genre had been on the rise even before Gangnam style – the Bank of Korea even argues that growing influence of K-pop helped to push Korea’s services account into the black -, the whole K-pop sector profits from the rising attention due to the viral blockbuster. More generally, this reciprocal benefits demonstrate that (creative) economy is not a zero-sum game. Other K-pop artists might profit from Psy’s success but don’t have to share these gains with the artist; and that is probably okay because Psy himself builds upon several K-pop traditions and the respective joint cultural heritage.
With regard to copyright regulation, the Gangnam phenomenon evidences that (a lot of) profits can be made even when, to a large degree, waiving to enforce copyrights. Furthermore, actors in attention-based industries regularly profit from attention-spillovers created by other artists, which points to the general importance of public goods for private profits in copyright markets.