Proposed Seoul Ferris Wheel Sparks Plagiarism Allegations

Last week, the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) announced its plan to build the “Seoul Ring”, the largest spokeless Ferris where on earth.

At 180 meters (591 feet), the SMG is putting the Ferris wheel in a park that is close to North Korea in hopes that it will be a symbol of peace between the two nations.

But while it may be intended as a symbol of peace, it’s already sparked controversy as two architects have accused the city of plagiarizing their earlier design.

In the year 2000, architects Woo Dae-seung and Lee Eun-seok participated in a Ministry of Culture and Tourism contest to build a national landmark. Entitled the “Door of the Millennium” project, the aim was for the country to build 12 new landmarks across the country.

Woo and Lee were named as winners of the contest, with their design of a 200-meter (656-foot) spokeless Ferris wheel being planned in the Seoul area. 

However, that project ended up being cancelled due to public backlash. That led to a lawsuit by the architects against the Ministry over allegedly unpaid design fees. The designers were awarded around 1.8 billion won ($1.3 million), which still remains unpaid due to “administrative reasons.”

According to Woo, the city government is simply copying his existing work, and he wants to make it clear that he does not want the city to use his design. 

SMG, for their part, has acknowledged that Woo and Lee’s design was one of the inspirations for the new project. However, the city insists that no one can own the idea of a spokeless Ferris wheel and that the new design is different from a functional standpoint.

As such, the city feels that there is no copyright infringement, though city leaders expressed respect for the original design.

All in all, it’s an ugly controversy that has done more to highlight divisions than it has to generate peace. 

A Predictable Controversy

This is a plagiarism controversy that is literally decades in the making. The designers involved in the original Door of the Millennium project feel as if they were mistreated by the national government. 

This is shown by the fact that they filed a lawsuit against the Ministry, won it and still haven’t received their damages. 

For the local government to then push for a similar project without the permission of those original designers, allegations of plagiarism were all but inevitable.

To be clear, there are differences between the projects. The original would have featured four gondolas, each carrying 20 passengers. The new version will have 36 carriages, each holding 25 passengers. This means about 12,000 people per day can ride it.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that the government is right, no one can own the shape of a Ferris wheel. So, it is unclear right now what legal recourse Woo might have, even if the project moves forward. Much of that will likely hinge on details that aren’t known at this time.

However, it’s pretty clear that the city government co-opted the “big idea” from Woo’s project. A project that, presumably, he still hasn’t been paid for. This is why the Korea Architects Institute, a trade group representing architects in the nation, has said that the planned project is “too similar” to Woo’s.

The city government doesn’t seem to argue against that, admitting to having taken inspiration from it. The only question is whether the copying crosses the line either into ethical or legal issues.

And that, unfortunately, is impossible to know without learning a lot more details about both projects. However, that issue is also fairly unimportant at this time. After all, this is a controversy that could have been very easily avoided. 

An Obvious Solution

However, this dispute could have and should have easily been avoided. If city leaders were aware and inspired by the Door of the Millennium Ferris wheel, all they had to do was bring those original designers in on the project.

Taking an old idea that was discarded, updating/improving it, and then making it a reality at a later date is a potentially very positive thing. However, those original designers still hold some sense of ownership of it, even if they can’t claim legal ownership, and they should have been involved in some way.

Instead, the government made no mention of the earlier work, which is why the Korea Architects Institute believes that the city has committed “an unethical deed that clearly neglects copyright.”

But even if the city is right and there is no copyright issue, why risk your massive symbol of peace becoming mired in allegations of plagiarism? Why ensure that the first news stories about your project negative and divisive?

This response is wholly predictable, given the unusually deep history of Seoul and spokeless Ferris wheels. All it took to prevent it was a bit of outreach and a desire to make sure everyone involved feels that they were treated fairly.

Bottom Line

In the end, the SMG is likely right. The big ideas that were copied are generally not protected by copyright, and there may be no legal recourse for the original designers unless other, more specific, elements turn out to be copied.

But copyright only looks at one aspect of this equation. Though copyright and plagiarism often overlap, they are very different concepts, with plagiarism about protecting authorship and copyright protecting commercial rights in a work. 

This is why the Korea Architects Institute released its statement. Simply put, the SMG is proposing a similar Ferris wheel at a similar location for a similar reason to the one Woo and Lee proposed decades ago. The fact that they weren’t even consulted or mentioned does seem very odd and like a slight to those designers.

This is something that the SMG could have easily avoided. Instead, they are turning straight to copyright defenses when the most pointed questions, at this time at least, center around the ethics of the project full stop.

It’s an awkward response that misses the point of the controversy. Though serious questions surrounding copyright may be asked later, today, the concerns are more generalized at the moment. 

The SMG would be wise to understand that and try to live up to the stated goals of the project, make peace. 

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