Violators of intellectual property rights and copyrights are the usual subjects of criminal and civil penalties, as well as public condemnation. However, a crisis engulfing an image provider has exposed a scheme that has somewhat deceitfully sought exorbitant profits in the name of copyright protection.
Just after Event Horizon Telescope researchers released the first-ever image of a black hole Wednesday, the Visual China Group website posted the image with its logo, indicating that payment is required to use the image. The company claimed in a statement Thursday that it acquired the image’s copyright from Event Horizon Telescope for use in media, not for commercial use such as advertisements.
In fact, such materials from the official websites of scientific authorities such as the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and NASA are available free of charge under the condition that users properly credit the sources.
The ESO responded to media questions, saying Visual China had not acquired the black hole image and that it is illegal for it to claim copyright.
Visual China Group’s crisis deepened later Thursday after the official Weibo account of the Communist Youth League Central Committee criticized the company’s sales of images of the national flag and national emblem on its website.
The company faced a bigger outpouring of complaints and criticism as many enterprises and individuals took to the Internet to expose its unscrupulous profiteering while championing copyright protection.
Actress Mo Xiaoqi revealed that her company once received a letter from Visual China demanding her company pay compensation for the use of photos that actually belong to her team. Mo discovered that Visual China wrongfully put her team’s photos on its website for sale without her knowledge and then took on her company without realizing it is her company that owns the copyright of the photos involved.
On Thursday evening, Visual China published an apology and closed its website temporarily for “rectification.”
Critics say that Visual China has intentionally allowed users to publish copyrighted photos taken from the Internet for some time before demanding exorbitant compensations or/and forcing them to sign a contract worth tens of thousands of yuan a year in exchange for dropping a lawsuit.
In the first three quarters of 2018, the Shenzhen-listed company made a net profit of 220 million yuan (US$32.82 million). Some analysts said the company’s suspected abuse of copyright lawsuits contributed a lot to its profits. One company faced more than 4,200 lawsuits from Visual China, the China Daily reported.
Users have also exposed similar problems from other image providers. Quanjing, a smaller provider, was reported to have filed 684 lawsuits in nine months.
The unusually high number of lawsuits means these providers may be abusing the legal system to seek unfair profits for themselves.
Some lawyers said Chinese courts are more inclined to side with claims lodged by purported copyright owners. Ma Xiaodong, partner of Zhonglun Law Firm, told yicai.com that in most cases Chinese courts automatically recognize the claims of the copyright if a photo in question bears the claimant’s watermark, giving rise to the possibilities that the courts make a ruling in favor of a party that falsely claims the copyright.
A loose stipulation in the Copyrights Law is also under scrutiny. Article 11 of the law stipulates that the copyright of a work belongs to the one who signs his/her name to it unless it is proven otherwise. This means the user accused of violating a copyright shoulders the burden of proving the plaintiff’s claims to be false, and this usually is a mission impossible for an individual or an organization.
The Visual China crisis gives a good opportunity for Chinese courts to consider how to better balance the rights of plaintiffs and defendants in copyright lawsuits, and figure out ways to prevent the legal system from being abused.
With the wider use of blockchain technology, it will become easier to identify the real owner of the copyright of a work. Hopefully the Visual China case will serve as a catalyst for efforts to make copyright protection more transparent and fair.
(The author is head of the Shenzhen Daily News Desk.)