In Korean textbook scheme, some plagiarists found not guilty

court caseSEOUL — When does plagiarizing an entire textbook not violate copyright law?

In a South Korean court, apparently.

On Wednesday, a district judge found ten professors who plagiarized textbooks guilty of copyright infringement—but ruled that four professors who added their names to subsequent printings were not guilty.

This case, which began as an alleged plagiarism ring of obscure science and engineering textbooks, could now rewrite the nation’s existing copyright law and spark debate on the high social standing enjoyed by professors.

Last December, we covered the indictments related to the scheme, in which prosecutors charged 179 professors and five publisher employees with plagiarizing textbooks in their entirety—by swapping out the covers for new ones with the names of different authors. Prosecutors said that under the decades-long practice, publishers hoped to boost sales of relatively low-volume textbooks by selling them with more prominent names—and by having more professors assign “their” text to their classes. The alleged plagiarists picked up royalty checks and padded their CVs for their yearly performance exams.

Wednesday’s verdicts were the first to be announced out of the 79 defendants facing trial; the rest are are split among several courts. The ten guilty professors, who had wrongly added their names to the book’s first printing, were fined 10-15 million won (US $8500-$12,800).

But the four who had added their names to second and subsequent printings were found not guilty.

Under Korean copyright law, it is illegal to “make a work public” under a name that is not the original author. But in the court’s interpretation, only the “initial release” counts as “making the work public.”

After that, the court effectively considers the work already public, and the author no longer has the right to determine who can “make it public.” Therefore, the professors adding their names on subsequent printings were not violating the copyright.

In another legal wrinkle, if the book was revised and released as a new edition, it was considered an “initial release” again, and those who wrongly put their names on that edition were found guilty.

The court did not shy away from acknowledging that the not-guilty professors had indeed not written the books they had claimed, writing, “their behavior cannot be excused by any explanation and they cannot be freed from moral responsibility.”

Prosecutors have slammed the ruling, saying it guts the nation’s existing copyright law. They note that under this interpretation, a play would no longer be protected after its opening night performance. Prosecutors told the Yonhap wire agency that

If we focus too much on the meaning of “initial,” the Copyright Act might be abused and the original author’s rights could be violated.

Yonhap reports that the prosecutors are weighing whether to appeal the verdict. But given that the case will set a precedent, they’re considering pushing it all the way to the Korean Supreme Court.

It could have been a lot worse: Under Korean copyright law, the guilty professors had faced a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of 50 million won (US $42,800).

The scandal has prompted some in Korea to wonder whether the nation’s traditional culture of respect for educators is now giving professors too much protection. Under Korean judicial practice, the names of the accused have not been released. But an editorial in the Kwangju Daily last December called for their dismissal, with the headline, “List of unconscientious ‘cover swap’ professors should be revealed.”

Most universities have policies that can result in dismissal for any professor fined more than 3 million won. But institutions have largely waited for the court rulings to play out before taking internal disciplinary action, reports the Korean-language Financial News, writing:

Most of the “cover swap” professors are lecturing students this semester as if nothing has happened.

Additional reporting by Jiksoo Kim

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