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Experts confront online literature’s copyright challenges

Author  :  CHEN XUE     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-06-29


Poster of The Princess Weiyoung, a Chinese hit TV series adapted from an online novel Photo: FILE

No industry can develop without legal protection. Online literature is no exception. In April 2020, drafts of amendments to the Chinese Copyright Law were submitted to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for deliberation, which will shed new light on the copyright protection of online literature. At the recent Two Sessions, many participants also made proposals contributing ideas to the industry’s healthy development.

“Copyright is a weak link in the development of online literature. At present, a clear awareness about copyright is absent. Copyright is a matter of life and death. The positive effects of copyright protection will have a profound impact on the development and direction of the online literature industry,” said Chen Dingjia, a research fellow from the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

Ignorance of IP

In the internet era, few words are more significant than “IP.” IP originally referred to intellectual property. In recent years, IP has become more than a legal term. IP has become a concept that displays the biggest driving force of the cultural industry, and a major contributor to current social and cultural phenomena, according to the 2019 Online Literature Development Report released in February by CASS.

We can highlight the characteristics of online literature’s copyright situation by comparing it with that of traditional publishing. “Online literature is far more dependent on technology and market than traditional literature,” Chen Dingjia said. Online literature shows new features suggesting that copyright protection is the beginning of the entire industrial chain. For example, the adaptation right for the online novel Five Elements, when the author was no more than 72 Chinese characters into the writing, was sold to a local game company for 8 million yuan. According to the Report on the Development of China’s Online Copyright Industry, the market size of China’s online copyright industry reached 742.3 billion yuan in 2018. Literary texts act as the locomotive of the entire cultural industry.

“Unlike traditional publishing, online literature covers a remarkably large number of works,” said Yan Xiaohong, chairman of the Copyright Society of China. In recent years, online literature has undergone explosive development with growing cases of copyright disputes. According to the 2018 China Online Literature Development Report by the China Audio-Video and Digital Publishing Association, domestic online literature creators have hit 17.55 million. Of the current trials regarding intellectual property rights, the number of copyright cases accounted for more than two-thirds. Twothirds of the copyright cases are pertinent to online literature.

The Chinese Copyright Association surveyed some 3,000 online literature writers. The questionnaire results show that nearly half of the online literature writers don’t clearly understand the content and significance of copyright protection, and more than half of the surveyed authors have no idea what it means to “delegate the copyright to Party A.”

Zhang Hongbo, the directorgeneral of the China Written Words Copyright Society, said that the writers of many online works have consulted and asked for help from the Copyright Society. In many cases, they wanted to know about copyright, the right of authorship and both sides’ rights and obligations in copyright transfer agreements. Many authors are not familiar with these issues.

Despite how much copyright protection matters for the entire industry, online literature writers have a real lack of copyright awareness.

Infringement, piracy

There is one novel that plagiarizes 16 novels by 12 authors. Zhou Jing wrote The Princess Weiyoung under the pseudonym Qin Jian. The work was adapted into a hit TV series. Later, 12 writers jointly sued Zhou for copying their works, all of them winning their cases in 2019. The court confirmed that Zhou has copied 114,000 Chinese characters in The Princess Weiyoung. It is considered a typical online literature copyright infringement case.

Piracy and plagiarism are major diseases that have troubled the development of online literature.

“It is easy to copy online works. Plagiarism requires a low cost that can generate a high profit. Also, the cost of breaking the law is negligible. Piracy has been a persistent problem in the online literature industry,” said Chen Qirong, director of the Online Literature Committee at the China Writers Association, pointing out the key reason for the failure to prohibit piracy despite repeated bans. He also mentioned the negative clout of this problem. “Piracy dampens the enthusiasm of writers and hurts the prosperity and development of online literature. Over time, it may cripple online literature,” Chen Qirong said.

“Infringement and piracy are very harmful to the entire industry, just like cancer cells,” Chen Dingjia said. Over the past several years, the relevant departments have taken measures to deal with many problems in online literature. In 2018, the National Office for the Elimination of Pornography and Illegal Publication and the National Press and Publication Administration jointly deployed a three-month special rectification operation targeting online literature, cracking down on three major problems, namely vulgar content, dissemination of pornographic information, and infringement and piracy.

The recent draft amendments introduce a system of punitive compensation for infringement, raising the upper limit of statutory compensation from 500,000 yuan to 5 million yuan. For infringement cases with serious circumstances, the applicable punitive compensation can reach between one time and five times the amount of compensation.

The amendments respond to the new demand for copyright protection in the context of the digital economy. Increased penalties for copyright infringements have risen the cost of violating the law. Insufficient adjudication and punishment are the top reasons causing repeated piracy and infringement in the field of online literature. “I’m optimistic that the implementation of the new copyright law will soon contain the persistent piracy problem in China’s online literature,” Chen Qirong said.

Consensus on copyright protection

After writing several online novels, the post-90s author Cun Jun gave up the path of online literature. One important reason is that he lost his motivation to create original novels.

Cun started to write online literature in 2011. “I signed a five-year copyright contract with the platform for the electronic version of my works,” Cun said. During his early writing career, most copyright contracts were similar to the contracts signed with publishing houses that take effect for five years after the completion of serialization. At that time, although the manuscript remuneration was not high, there was a full-attendance bonus. Also, we could have a share of the online platform’s income from the paid novel. Now, we can see two trends. The money for full attendance bonus has been reduced, and online platforms want to own the copyright for a longer period. The rookie’s path to becoming a master is not easy. Cun’s story demonstrates the intimate relationship between copyright protection and originality.

At this year’s Two Sessions, the online literature copyright protection also gripped the attention of participants. Jiang Shengnan, a deputy of the National People’s Congress and vice chairman of the Zhejiang Online Literature Writers Association, suggested that government regulatory agencies should involve and launch a standard contract format that guarantees the equal rights of platforms and writers. Gu Ben, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and director of the Foreign Language Acquisition and Editing Department at the National Library, proposed collective governance to promote the healthy development of online literature.

Yan held that currently, an online platform hires millions of authors, including legendary authors and rookie authors. Their expectations may vary. Contracts should conform to the actual situation and the wishes of both parties. Identification of problems is the first step to solving them. Cun noticed that some online forums have begun to publish several articles on copyright and answer the authors’ questions. In his view, this is a good approach.

“Platforms, authors and readers are all crucial for the healthy development of online literature. Copyright protection should become a consensus. We need to establish a diversified copyright protection system with the aid of policy, technology and law,” Chen Dingjia said.


This article was translated from Guangming Daily.

Editor: Yu Hui

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