I’m giving this week’s special award for bravery to cutting-edge financial news publisher Caixin, which is challenging the widespread illegal copying of copyrighted articles that occurs daily on Chinese news sites.
Everyone knows that this kind of piracy is rampant in China, but some might be surprised to learn that companies targeted in Caixin’s new lawsuit include some of China’s top news portals, led by Sina (SINA.US) and Sohu (SOHU.US).
I was also just slightly embarrassed to see that one of the companies being sued is financial news and information site Hexun, which is backed by my former employer Reuters (RTR.TO).
I can personally testify that this kind of piracy is quite common among the big news portals, and frequently I will read a story in a big publication like China Business News, only to see the exact same headline and story appear on Sina.
Portals like Sina seem to think that what they do is OK as long as they credit the original source of the article, which they usually do at the bottom where readers are unlikely to see it.
What’s more, they seldom add links back to the original story, which could at least theoretically benefit the copyright owner by driving some traffic back to its website.
According to the latest headline, which was published in a report by Caixin itself, the company has formally sued Sina, Sohu, Hexun and also ifeng, the portal operated by New York-listed Phoenix New Media (FENG.US).
For once Caixin probably doesn’t need to worry about this particular article being illegally republished by anyone, meaning it probably won’t get too much publicity in China!
But all joking aside, Caixin said it took its action in a court in the Haidian District of Beijing, and that hearings will begin next Monday and Tuesday.
The report notes several specific articles that were republished without authorization, and says it sent letters to 11 offenders demanding that they remove such content and end the practice. Not surprisingly, it didn’t receive any responses to those letters.
I don’t usually quote entire sentences from reports I write about, but in this instance there’s one that deserves republishing here because it shows the level of frustration that Caixin is feeling.
“Since its founding five years ago, Caixin Media has been the victim of copyright violations so many times that it has started actively exploring ways to promote the rule of law,” the publisher wrote in its article.
I have quite a lot of respect for Caixin, which is headed by one of China’s most respected editors, Hu Shuli, and is known for its cutting-edge investigative reporting.
The company is also known for other western-style practices like paying its reporters top-notch salaries. That allows them to chase and break major stories without having to accept bribes and blackmailing companies to supplement their income — practices that are quite common among other lower-paid reporters.
I should note here that while the Chinese news portals are quite liberal about illegally “borrowing” content from other sources, they do seem to have a certain respect for material published by western sources.
I seldom see material on Chinese sites taken directly from western media, and most Chinese sources are careful to credit the source and rewrite such reports when they use them.
Even my own material seldom gets illegally copied, and most Chinese media will ask me directly for permission if they want to republish something.
This kind of double standard isn’t that uncommon in China, as many local media probably want to observe copyrights but feel pressure to follow when they see their peers using unauthorized material.
Accordingly, many of the big players may actually comply with a court order telling them to stop using pirated material if they feel that their rivals are also observing such an order.
Caixin has always been seen as an industry leader and trend setter, and I’m just slightly hopeful that this court action will mark the start of a new trend that could finally see the rampant piracy practiced by these otherwise-respectable names finally stop.
At the end of the day, this kind of piracy undermines not only the companies that practice it, but also media like Caixin that are leaders in their field and will be vital information providers in the future development of China’s financial markets.
Bottom line: Caixin’s new lawsuit against leading portals Sohu, Sina and Hexun could mark the start of a much-needed clean-up that will end the practice of rampant copyright violations among major Chinese news sites.
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