Beijing Beat blog with Mark Godfrey

Beijing Beat

Chinese Courts Getting Serious On Piracy?

Apr 9

Written by:
4/9/2008 2:31 AM  RssIcon

A landmark case puts leading Chinese portal in the dock for profiting off unlawfully downloaded music

Here's a press release from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI). The organisation's Asia chief Mayseey Leong put off an interview with Cluas scheduled for last week till this landmark court case was announced. The court action, she told me today, is "a last resort" attempt by the organisation to fight Internet portal Baidu, one of China's most successful corporations, which it claims has been getting fat off stolen music.

"A Chinese court has agreed to hear damages claims totalling US$9 million against the country’s dominant internet company Baidu from three record companies. The claim is the tip of the iceberg in a copyright infringement test-case that could expose the Chinese internet giant to a multi-billion dollar liability.

Baidu’s music delivery services, which are quite separate from its general search engine, “deep link” users directly to hundreds of thousands of copyright infringing music tracks. They generate substantial advertising revenue for Baidu while causing massive damage to the music industry. In April 2007 a precedent-setting ruling found Yahoo China guilty of facilitating mass copyright infringement for operating a music delivery service very similar to Baidu’s. That ruling was confirmed in December 2007 by the Beijing Higher People’s Court, the final appeals court.

The record companies’ infringement claims against Baidu are based on 127 of their own music tracks, which are just a small representative sample of the wider infringement. They seek the maximum statutory compensation under Chinese law of RMB 500,000 (US$71,000) per track. This creates total claims of RMB 63,500,000 (US$9m) but the ultimate exposure could be much greater. Baidu participates in the infringement of more than a quarter of a million tracks, which could leave the internet company faced with multi-billion dollar damages claims when further action is taken to secure maximum statutory damages on all these tracks.

China’s internet companies have so far spurned the chance to partner with the recording industry and instead are facilitating mass-scale piracy on their networks. China has great potential as a legitimate digital music market, with more broadband connections than the US and a huge music-buying demographic. However, over 99 per cent of all music online in China infringes copyright, frustrating efforts to develop a legitimate music market.

The bulk of this online music piracy is accounted for by services that are run by hugely profitable companies such as Baidu. In February, the internet search engine announced fourth quarter 2007 profits of RMB 219.8 million (US$30.6m), an increase of 79 per cent over the same quarter in 2006.

The three record companies, Universal Music Ltd, Sony BMG Music Entertainment Hong Kong Ltd and Warner Music Hong Kong Ltd, have filed their claims with the Beijing No.1 Intermediate People’s Court asking the court to order Baidu to remove all links to copyright infringing tracks to which they hold the rights.

Four record companies have also announced they will be bringing legal action against Sogou, the Chinese music delivery service operated by Sohu Inc, which also participates in mass copyright infringement. Sohu is the official sponsor of internet content service for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. The companies bringing the action are Sony BMG Music Entertainment Hong Kong Ltd, Warner Music Hong Kong Ltd, Gold Label Entertainment Ltd and Universal Music Ltd. They are claiming maximum statutory damages of RMB 500,000 for 105 tracks, bringing the total claim to US$7.5 million. These claims will also be heard by the Beijing court.

John Kennedy, Chairman and Chief Executive of IFPI, which represents the recording industry worldwide, says: “Baidu is China’s largest violator of music copyrights, generating huge revenue by deliberately providing access to illegal content. The scale of what it is doing can be summed up by the fact that if the courts were to rule that Baidu should pay maximum statutory damages for all the infringing tracks available through its service it would have to pay many billions of dollars in compensation. That would be an enormous but appropriate price to pay for a company that is failing to take what are quite simple steps to respect the rights of artists and record companies and protect the content of IFPI’s members.

“The record industry wants partnership with China’s internet companies, but one that is based on respect of copyright and the law. It is totally wrong that internet giants like Baidu should build a fortune by abusing the rights of artists, songwriters and record producers.”

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