black rubber shoes movie poster
Poster for the Black Rubber Shoes animated film

The Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism will be launching a special investigation into publisher Hyungseol and the contract it holds with the creators of popular kids manhwa Black Rubber Shoes following the March 11 suicide of Lee Yoo-young, one of the creators. The investigation was initiated following a petition by the Korean Cartoonists Association. In addition it said it will set up a legal-advice bureau for young creators concerned with copyright.

The special investigation will determine whether the contract signed by Lee and his brother Woo-jin with publisher Hyungseol was unfair and in violation of the Protection of Artists’ Rights Act, which came into effect in September 2022. 

In a situation a bit reminiscent of Siegel and Shuster, the brother complained that despite the popularity of the strip -which ran 15 years and spawned multiples films and Tv shows –  because of signing their original contract, they had made only 12 million won (about $9000) from Black Rubber Shoes over the course of 15 years. 

Korea is a hotbed for comics and the birthplace of the popular vertical webtoon format. Recent reports have talked about the harsh work conditions and the impact on mental health but the role of publisher contracts and ownership rights (a universal problem in the comics world) has been little discussed.

On March 11 Lee Yoo-young, 51, was found dead in his home in Incheon by family members. It was reported as a suicide and his family had said he was “struggling due to copyright suit issues” – both mentally and financially. The copyright suit filed by Hyungseol against the creators behind Black Rubber Shoes was initiated in 2019.

According to The Korea Herald:

“In 2019, the two brothers were sued by the head of Hyungseol, who had taken over the copyright and business rights for Black Rubber Shoes. The publishing house filed a lawsuit for 286 million won ($219,000) in damages against the two for allegedly using the characters without the company’s consent. The brothers had signed a contract with the publishing house in 2007, and since then had been barred from creating secondary works based on the copyright of Black Rubber Shoes. The original cartoonists were paid about 12 million won ($9,200) over a period of about 15 years.”

Black Rubber Shoes is a popular family manhwa about 1960s/1970s Korea prior to the massive social, industrial, and technological changes that would occur in successive decades. It was created and drawn by brothers Lee Yoo-young and Woo-Jin; and written by Lee Young-il. It ran from 1992 to 2006 in biweekly Sonyeon Champ magazine. The title of the comic comes from the cheap, hard-wearing shoes that Korean children commonly wore in the period. A TV adaptation debuted in 1999 and multiple TV and movies have been produced based on the property – with the most recent being a movie in October 2022. Hyungseol claims the brothers signed over all ownership to the IP in 2007 and that it has exclusive rights to the use of and profits from exploiting the work.

With media coverage of the death of a popular cartoon’s co-creator, alongside petitions from the their family and the Korean Cartoonists Association this week – the pressure appears to have mounted and forced the Korean government to act more swiftly.

According to Korea JoongAng Daily:

“Culture minister Park Bo-gyoon ordered that the investigation look into whether Lee’s tragic decision is directly linked to the unfair contract and to take strong actions.

“The task force team, which will consist of experts in fields like copyright, the cartoon industry and publishing as well as lawyers, will inquire into whether there was any violation on the Protection of Artists’ Rights Act by investigating the publisher and other related parties.

“[Culture Ministry spokesperson Kang Jung-won] stressed that if the investigation finds anything that goes against the Rights Protection Act including coercing cartoonists into signing an unfair contract, the ministry will notify the Fair Trade Commission and related organizations to take follow-up measures.”

Kang Jung-won added,

“The ministry will also establish a copyright legal aid center that offers legal advice to younger artists and finds ways to protect their rights and interests to their work.”

This could be potentially game-changing for creators rights and protection in the country.

An earlier law, the Artist Welfare Act 2011 was set up to,

“…legally protect the professional status and rights of artists; to promote the creative activities of artists; and to contribute to artistic development by providing artists with welfare support services.”

The third article of the Artist Welfare Act 2011 – which includes a 2013 amendment – said:

“Article 3 (Status and Rights of Artists)

          1. “Each artist shall be properly respected as a being who significantly contributes to enhancing Korean culture and to improving the quality of life style of the people.
          2. “Each artist shall have a right to freely engage in artistic activities and to fairly enjoy mental and material benefits from the outcomes of artistic activities.
          3. “Each artist shall have a right not to be compelled to sign an unfair contract as tangible or intangible interests are offered or to be threated with any disadvantage. <Newly Inserted by Act No. 12136, Dec. 30, 2013>”

Presumably this was insufficiently enforced – particularly for cartoonists – and the new October 2022 Rights Protection Act will have more teeth.

[If you or someone you know is in danger of commiting self-harm, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988.]