Korea's progress on Intellectual Property Rights led to its removal from the Special 301 Watch List in 2009. The importance of IPR protection has increased in recent years as the digitization of Korea’s economy has significantly enhanced the ability to produce and spread unauthorized reproductions of copyrighted material. With Korea’s products and trademarks enjoying global success, Korean creators of intellectual property stand to benefit from improvements in the domestic intellectual property regime. In addition, although significant progress has been made, concerns remain with respect to book piracy in universities, street vendor sales of illegally copied DVDs, counterfeiting of consumer products, protection of undisclosed test and other data for pharmaceutical marketing approval, and a lack of coordination between Korean health and IPR authorities to prevent the issuance of marketing approvals for patent infringing products.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (MCST) amended its Copyright Law in July 2009 to include a “Three Strikes” program against illegal file-sharing. Under the amended law, users who download illegally will be sent a warning letter, which counts as a strike. Three strikes will lead to a suspension of that user’s internet account by the Internet Service Provider. In December 2009, MCST reported that the Korea Copyright Commission has issued 19,800 corrective recommendations since the law was amended. No corrective orders to suspend a user’s internet account have been issued.
In 2009, the ROKG, coordinated by MCST, continued its progress on IPR enforcement in several areas, and appears to remain committed to fighting piracy in its various forms. However, MCST’s staff shortfall affects its software piracy efforts and remains a concern. The staff cuts date back to the integration of the Ministry of Information and Communication into MCST as part of President Lee’s governmental reorganization. MCST is currently requesting increased funding and staff from the Minister of Public Administration and Security.
MCST has stressed that despite the decrease in staff, it has made efforts to ensure that all central and municipal government agencies are using properly licensed software, and next year plans to carry out a similar review at the corporate level. In the meantime, MCST plans to provide a counseling service for corporations so that they properly manage their software licenses.
MCST held its second annual 100-day campaign against off-line pirated copyrighted material, known as the “100 Day Seoul Clean Project,” from April until August of this year. MCST noted it plans to continue this project on an annual basis. During the 100 Day Seoul Clean Project, MCST and Korean law enforcement raided street vendors and stores selling pirated DVDs, CDs, software, and books. According to MCST’s statistics, seizures of pirated material increased 24 percent to 214,199 illegal items, and prosecutions increased 46 percent to 544 cases, compared to the numbers from last year’s campaign. Additionally, MCST has promised to carry out anti-book piracy enforcement activities on Korean campuses at the beginning of semesters.
The ROKG has also demonstrated a renewed commitment to investigating and prosecuting "topsites." Little known to the general public, topsites are computer servers that hold tens of thousands of pirated software, games, music and movie files. ROKG ministries met with music industry stakeholders to discuss investigatory techniques. The ROKG has expressed to US Embassy Seoul its intention to carry out enforcement actions against topsites.
Korean patent law is a “first to file” regime. Although the law is fairly comprehensive and affords protection to most products and technologies, a U.S. company must be registered with the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO) to obtain legal protection. KIPO has amended relevant laws regarding restrictions on patent term extension for certain pharmaceutical, agrochemical, and animal health products that are subject to lengthy clinical trials and domestic testing requirements. An issue of continuing concern, however, has been the lack of coordination between the Korean Food and Drug Administration and KIPO and related issues that have resulted in the granting of marketing approval for unauthorized copies of pharmaceutical products.
Korea’s Trademark Act has been amended to strengthen provisions that prohibit the registration of trademarks without the authorization of foreign trademark holders by allowing examiners to reject any registrations made in "bad faith." Despite this change, the complex legal procedures that U.S. companies must follow to seek cancellation have discouraged U.S. companies from pursuing legal remedies. In particular, problems still arise with respect to "sleeper" trademark registrations filed and registered in Korea without authorization in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when KIPO was still developing a more effective and accurate trademark examination and screening process.
Korean laws on unfair competition and trade secrets provide a basic level of trade secret protection in Korea, but are insufficient in some instances. For example, some U.S. firms, particularly certain manufacturers of chemicals, pet food, cosmetics, and food products, face continuing problems with government regulations requiring submission of very detailed product information, such as formula or blueprints, as part of registration or certification procedures. U.S. firms report that, although the release of business confidential information is forbidden under Korean law, in some instances, government officials do not sufficiently protect this proprietary information, and trade secrets appear to have been made available to Korean competitors or to their trade associations.