Caixin
Jul 24, 2018 12:05 PM
OPINION

Editorial: Copyright Infringers Must Face Consequences

Photo: VCG
Photo: VCG

China still has a long way to go in creating a clear system for protecting online intellectual property rights. Recently, the country’s National Copyright Administration, together with a number of other government bodies, launched the 2018 version of the annual “Sword Net” anti-online piracy campaign. This is the 14th edition of the campaign, which debuted in 2005. The campaign will focus on tackling problems in areas including unauthorized republishing, short videos and animated content. Online copyright protection for news media was one of the key tasks of Sword Net 2017, and is still on the list of focus areas for this year, which shows how severe the situation is.

Aside from continuing to focus on the unauthorized republishing of news stories, this year’s Sword Net campaign will also focus on “content laundering” — the use of various techniques to hide an article’s origins — as well as illegal reposting of content on social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat. These are deeply entrenched problems that have been the subject of much talk, but that many in the journalism business feel helpless to prevent. Sword Net 2018 is once more raising the hopes of mass media. However, we are concerned about the extent to which the campaign can accurately grasp the problem points of the copyright chaos in China’s media industry, directly address problems, and effectively deter copyright infringers, in order to truly establish order in the area of internet copyright protection. The key is to make infringers feel the pain of breaking the law while satisfying the demands of content owners.

News outlets have faced new challenges to their intellectual property rights with the rise of internet media platforms. There is no doubt that online media is a product of technological advancement, and can help to transmit messages instantly and express public sentiment. For these reasons, it should be supported and protected. However, online media also has its negative aspects. Copyright infringement is an obvious issue, with many people engaging in unauthorized republishing, usage, or dissemination of news content, or altering articles without the author’s consent in order to serve their own interests. Sometimes news stories are so heavily “processed” by unauthorized republishers that the resulting articles are beyond recognition. Facts are distorted and errors are disseminated, harming the public interest. In recent years, such “content laundering” has gradually gained attention and become the subject of much criticism.

In the past, online copyright infringement persisted despite repeated attempts to stamp it out because the laws governing this area were unsound and the regulations were unclear. But when it comes to the controversial practice of “content laundering,” the legal definitions are clearer, and courts have already heard a number of legal cases related to the practice. The only consideration of online copyright infringers is profit. The cheaper their method of obtaining content, the greater their gain, and plagiarizing or “laundering” articles saves them time and effort since the cost of breaking the law is very low. Even when these criminals are caught, because the costs of taking them to court are far higher than the benefit of stopping these infringements, copyright owners are often forced to settle cases privately. Infringers have the advantage in this situation, and can continue to drag their feet and act unreasonably. Just as news articles respond quickly to unfolding events, copyright protection must also be effective without delay. Justice delayed is justice denied. A system that makes copyright protection expensive is essentially a system that encourages infringement.

For many years, special campaigns have used rectification, administrative punishment and litigation to tackle a number of major cases, forcing hundreds of copyright-infringing websites to close. However, the authorities have been unable to fully tackle all instances of online copyright infringement, and have not contained the fundamental factors motivating infringing behavior. This is due in some part to the personnel, supervision methods, and capabilities of enforcement agencies. The establishment of a specialized executive team to enforce intellectual property rights should be put on the Chinese government’s agenda as soon as possible.

We have three suggestions for this year’s Sword Net campaign:

First of all, Sword Net should do more than just go through the motions of copyright protection, and work hard at achieving an actual effect. For example, platforms found to have committed serious infringements must be urged to follow through on rectification measures. Investigation and discovery are only the first steps, but executive law enforcement frequently focuses only on these without taking care of the rest of the process. The result is that the rectification process begins quickly and ends swiftly too, and it is all too easy for infringements to crop up in the same places again. The effectiveness of law enforcement depends on how meticulously the enforcement process is conducted. Law enforcement measures need improvement, and the results of each rectification action should be evaluated. Enforcement personnel who take only perfunctory action or obstruct justice should be held accountable. Special campaigns have been conducted for many years, and some of the more-effective measures should be gradually incorporated into the regular enforcement process. On the whole, authorities should exert a vigorous effort to ensure copyright protection is actually effective, whether it is through the special Sword Net campaigns or through litigation.

Additionally, China should strengthen or establish organizations to collectively manage and protect intellectual property rights. According to the country’s Regulation on the Collective Administration of Copyright, rights that are difficult for individual property owners to exercise on their own may instead be collectively managed by organizations. The Music Copyright Society of China is the only collective management organization for music copyright on the Chinese mainland, and it has played an increasingly important role recently. The news industry has also explored similar options, setting up the Alliance of China News Media for Copyright Protection, as well as a similar alliance for business and financial news, in recent years. But these organizations are still in their infancy and require improvement in areas including coverage and capabilities.

Finally, online platforms should assume a greater responsibility for fighting copyright infringement. Some larger platforms have taken the first steps to establish complaint mechanisms, and can generally deal with more obvious infringements once rights owners file complaints. However, subtler forms of infringement, especially “content laundering,” still thrive under unclear or inconsistent controls, and online platforms are, on the whole, poorly equipped to deal with these cases. Moreover, the serious time lag in these platforms’ responses greatly reduces the effect of copyright protection. Platform users suspected of multiple instances of plagiarism should undoubtedly suffer heavier penalties, but it is up to the platforms to decide what the standards are and how the seriousness of infringements should be measured. Platforms must remember not to let their own interests get in the way of penalizing infringers. In addition, under the current regime, platforms’ attempting to play the parts of both “athlete” and “referee” simultaneously will only result in further abuses.

Caixin Media has been a victim of serious copyright infringement, and has always actively advocated and put into practice the principles of copyright protection. We firmly believe that a clear system of copyright protection would not only be in our own interest, but also benefit the country and the people. Online piracy and infringement of news copyright are like counterfeit, shoddily made goods, which harm the public interest. But while the latter affects the physical health and quality of life of the people, the former distorts public perceptions of the world, eroding its ethical and intellectual values. The government continues to take action against online copyright infringement, and the media industry understands how difficult this task is, but we hope that rectification efforts will achieve practical results as soon as possible. In order to defeat online copyright infringement, it is necessary to treat the “symptoms” in order to buy time to treat the cause.

Translated by Teng Jing Xuan (jingxuanteng@caixin.com)

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