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'Protect creators before exulting in K-culture boom'

March 27, 2023 - 23:37 By Park Ga-young

Lee Woo-jin, the co-creator of “Black Rubber Shoes” and the deceased cartoonist Lee Yoo-young's younger brother, reads a statement during a press conference at the National Assembly on Monday. (Park Ga-young/The Korea Herald)

A committee set up in the aftermath of the death of cartoonist Lee Yoo-young, the original creator of hit cartoon and animation series “Black Rubber Shoes,” on Monday urged the fair treatment of creators.

“It’s not the time to celebrate the popularity of K-culture. The most important thing is to protect the lives of creators and their self-esteem,” the committee said in a statement read during a press conference held at the National Assembly on Monday, adding that many creators are suffering from mental health issues.

According to a survey of 320 webtoon creators by the Korea Institute of Labor Safety and Health in January, 28.7 percent of the respondents were suffering from depression. What's more, their likelihood of getting depression was four times higher than other respondents.

The committee of 10 organizations including the Korean Cartoonists Association and the Korea Webtoonist Association, said it is their mission to prevent similar tragedies from happening by creating a fair system for creators.

Kim Sung-joo, the spokesperson of the committee and an attorney, argued that the publishing house Hyungseul is holding the characters from the webtoon hostage and demanded the return of all rights to Lee’s family and Lee Woo-jin, the co-creator of “Black Rubber Shoes” and the deceased cartoonist’s younger brother.

“While we have no knowledge about how much monetary value Hyungseol has created with 77 products based on the copyright of ‘Black Rubber Shoes,’ the original cartoonists were paid about 12 million won ($9,223) over a period of about 15 years,” Kim said.

A still from the TV animation version of "Black Rubber Shoes" (KBS)

Woo-jin, the younger brother, said, “In 2007, we meet the people who we thought would help to grow Gi-young and Gi-chul (the two main characters of ‘Black Rubber Shoes') but the deal turned out to be a malicious one that took away my brother’s soul.”

As the two brothers were embroiled in a series of lawsuits and were excluded from the creation of secondary works, they were effectively forced to stop creating artwork.

In addition to the return of the copyrights, the committee demanded a sincere apology from the publishing house and a withdrawal of all two lawsuits against the Lee brothers. The two brothers were sued in 2019 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 Lee and Woo-jin for allegedly using the characters without the company's consent.

The committee also asked the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to conduct a thorough investigation and to come up with measures to prevent the recurrence of similar problems.

Cartoon artist Lee Woo-young was found dead on March 11 by his family members. He was 51 and is survived by his wife and three children.

“Black Rubber Shoes,” created together with story writer Lee Young-il, ran from 1992 to 2006 in the biweekly magazine Comic Champ. It was developed into various secondary works, including an animated film in 1999, which was was broadcast on KBS2.