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A screenshot of the YouTube video of Pinkfong's Baby Shark
A screenshot of the YouTube video of Pinkfong's Baby Shark

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Korean brand sued over traditional campfire song, but who really owns the copyright?

The most recent publishers of a popular children's song are being sued for copyright infringement. But even then it's unclear who wrote it.

South Korean brand Pinkfong, which is behind the video for the song “Baby Shark”, has been sued by American children’s entertainer Johnny Only. The various official versions of the song by Pinkfong have been viewed over 4 billion times (yes, billion) on streaming platforms.

The song has become a pop culture phenomenon. It was performed by popular K-Pop acts, was featured on the Ellen Show, and has been covered by Josh Groban, Sophie Turner and James Corden on The Late Late Show.

Only has claimed that the music in the Korean video is a rip off of a video he created of the song in 2011. His YouTube video for it had about 100,000 views as of August, but is currently at around 2 million views. The more popular Korean version was released in 2016.

The two songs do sound similar, and Only, who is based in New York, is claiming in his lawsuit that the songs are specifically similar in length, tempo, rhythm, and style.

The problem is, Baby Shark is in the public domain as its original author is unknown. In fact, Only has admitted that he did not create “Baby Shark” as it has been around for some time. The song is believed to be a campfire chant created at summer camps in the United States, and dates back to the 1900s. The song was made popular only after the Korean version blew up on social media.

In other words, this is a song without a known author — which effectively places the original version in the public domain.

SmartStudy, the owner of Pinkfong, insists that they have full ownership of the song. "Produced by SmartStudy, we are the producer and publisher, we own and control 100% of the song," Seunghyun Kevin Yoon, marketing manager for SmartStudy, told Canada’s CBC.

Ultimately, the courts will have to decide on such matters.

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Mark Laudi

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