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SEOUL — South Korean university student Seong-sun is a rebel without a TV. Like other twentysomethings in tech-friendly parts of the world, Seong-sun, 27, uses his laptop to watch user-generated content and can see programming on his mobile phone.
But, in South Korea, peer-to-peer video services have exploded. His laptop is his entertainment gateway. The Internet is the distribution platform of choice and the content at his fingertips is a dizzying array of pirated TV shows and movies.
Seong-sun pays a small subscription fee to an Internet service that allows him to download thousands of movies, including Hollywood films not yet released in South Korea.
He can also receive TV shows such as “American Idol,” complete with Korean subtitles, less than 24 hours after airing.
Lax enforcement of copyright laws and South Korea’s high broadband penetration rate have helped fuel the popularity of these services.
“So many people do this that I’m not scared of getting caught. Everyone else thinks the same thing, too,” Seong-sun said.
He asked not to have his family name used so that prosecutors would not go after him for one of their few showcase investigations.
User-generated content sites such as “ipop” (www.ipop.co.kr) have clubs where users can pay by the download or pony up monthly subscription fees of about 10,000 won to 20,000 won ($11 to $22) that will let them tap into a huge library of U.S., Japanese, Chinese and Korean TV programming and movies.
One of the most popular peer-to-peer clubs, Mansal, has had nearly 50 million visitors. While many are repeaters, the total is still almost equal to the country’s population.
“I like to download stuff because I don’t have to wait to watch something” Seong-sun said.
The clubs make money from subscription fees and advertising. Young professionals with little time to spare and students with an abundance of time to search for material are the main clients for these services — making cable TV and TV sets obsolete.
The clubs often obtain content from Koreans living abroad who upload movies. They also upload TV programming within hours after it airs and translate it.
The clubs have helped to make shows such as “Prison Break” and “Ugly Betty” hits first among Internet users. Cable companies later picked up local broadcasting rights.
South Korea this year stepped up penalties for those who violate copyright laws by downloading pirated material, but that has had almost no effect.
South Korea’s biggest daily newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, said in a survey earlier this year that the average movie fan watches about two movies a month in theaters and about three new releases a month via illegal downloads.
“More than half of Koreans are not aware that this is a problem,” said a culture ministry official.
“But as a whole, it brings about a total of almost 1 trillion won ($1.1 billion) worth of losses to the entertainment industry a year.”
Major entertainment companies have tried to get into the act by starting up services for legal downloads. Hanarotelecom, the country’s No. 2 broadband provider, is offering a subscription service where users can legally download programming to their mobile phones.
Media specialists, however, only see the pirating trend getting stronger. More Koreans are used to finding their programming over the Internet and are aided by even faster download speeds to their laptops and mobile phones.
“Even if you are watching a computer or mobile phone, you still say in Korean that you are watching television,” said Yoon Tae-jin, associate dean of Yonsei University’s Graduate School of Communication and Art.
Yoon said young Koreans want flexibility in time and space. Downloading entertainment allows users to watch programming at a time they feel appropriate and handheld devices allow them to watch it wherever they please.
“More and more people will forget about the television set and regard the Internet as the gateway for so many types of programming and content,” Yoon said.
A spokeswoman for one of South Korea’s biggest TV makers, LG Electronics, said the TV set will not become obsolete but it has to evolve into a device that can tap into computer networks.
“The line between TV and PC is being blurred. Today’s consumers no longer care about the conventional definition of a gadget. They just want one that fits their lifestyle,” said Judy Pae of LG.
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