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Seoul court rules against NY composer in ‘Baby Shark’ plagiarism case

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“Baby Shark Dance” became the most-viewed video on YouTube in November 2020. [PINKFONG]
“Baby Shark Dance” became the most-viewed video on YouTube in November 2020. [PINKFONG]

A Korean appeals court on Friday ruled against an American composer in a plagiarism lawsuit he brought against the producer of the popular South Korean children’s song “Baby Shark.”

The Seoul Central District Court rejected a claim by New York-based composer Johnny Only that “Baby Shark,” released by South Korean education startup SmartStudy (now Pinkfong) in 2015, copied his 2011 song.

Pinkfong’s music video for the song features a family of sharks hunting for small fish.

The video went viral on the Internet in 2016 and has since become the most-watched YouTube video of all time, accumulating over 12 billion views as of last month.

Only, whose legal name is Jonathan Wright, filed a lawsuit against Pinkfong in Korea in March 2019, claiming that the South Korean company plagiarized his own arrangement of “Baby Shark,” which he uploaded to YouTube in 2011.

The composer claimed 30 million won ($22,530) in damages from Pinkfong, alleging that they used the same bass, rhythm, electric guitar arrangement, and tempo change as his song for their song.

Only told CBC in an interview in 2019 that he filed his lawsuit after the Liberty Korea Party — the predecessor of the current conservative People Power Party — was threatened with legal action by Pinkfong for using his version of the song to promote their candidates’ campaigns.

The party had asked Only for permission to use the song, which he said he granted because he because he believed it was in the public domain as a traditional song.

In his CBC interview, Only said, “If Pinkfong’s song is so close to mine that they can’t even tell the difference, and Pinkfong tries to claim copyright infringement against their version when the political party is using my version, doesn’t that mean that my version also has copyright protection?”

Pinkfong has denied plagiarizing Only’s version of the song, arguing that its song is a unique recreation of a traditional North American children’s song sung in camp communities.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]