China's video websites forced to adjust to tighter regulations

Amid fears of even more censorship, some welcome better IP protection

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 April, 2014, 6:39am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 April, 2014, 9:21am

China has the world's largest audience for online video content. It is also home to a sizeable internet police force, ready to delete content the state deems objectionable.

The tightening of China's internet regulations, already among the most restrictive in the world, has mainland web portals that host crowd-sourced videos and television content scrambling to meet new requirements.

The State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT), the media watchdog, in late January issued rules requiring video-sharing websites to censor uploaded content and institute a "real name" policy, ending the practice of posting short videos anonymously or under pseudonyms.

Yesterday was World Intellectual Property Day, a celebration of the role of IP in "stimulating creativity and innovation", according to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, a Geneva-based group that works to increase IP awareness.

The restriction has heightened anxiety among the legions of mainland Chinese who have turned to the internet for entertainment.

Early this month, many expressed fears that the SARFT intends to apply the restrictions to popular US television serials such as The Walking Dead and Masters of Sex, programmes that feature gore and sexual themes the regulator deems offensive.

"My recent horror-themed film script was scrapped by the SARFT," said Li Yi, a film director.

Li criticised the watchdog's standards and noted that savvy internet users long ago found ways to defeat the "Great Firewall of China" to watch banned content. "The more restrictions the government places on Chinese films and videos, the further they drive the domestic audience to American films, which cover diverse and contemporary subject matter," he said.

Chinese online bulletin boards brim with discussion about US television shows. Nearly a quarter-million fans of such series as Breaking Bad, Two Broke Girls and House of Cards contribute to discussion threads on such websites as Douban.com a social network for literature and film buffs, geared to Chinese yuppies.

The discussions range from plotlines and character studies to the best sites for accessing free shows.

China's most prominent video-sharing sites, including Youku.com, letv.com and tv.sohu.com, have licensed big catalogues of popular US programming and film in the past five years.

The websites sell advertisements and memberships to underwrite content costs.

"I love watching American shows and films, especially the Big Bang Theory," said He Shan, 29, a video producer.

"The creativity of the storytelling and the high production value make the shows visually and intellectually compelling," He said.

While such praise may delight the show's producers, the insistence on watching the content free of charge will undoubtedly meet with disapproval. "Like me, people who are used to buying 10 yuan DVDs are not willing to pay more. It is a stubborn consuming habit," he said.

Loke-Khoon Tan, head of law firm Baker & McKenzie's intellectual-property practice in China, said copyright protection in the country had significantly improved in recent years. Most of the video-sharing websites have now obtained licences from the copyright owners of US television shows and films before offering them online.

Tan said the latest judicial interpretation of China's Copyright Law had provided clear guidance on violations of intellectual-property rights online, and the amendments currently under review by legislators were likely to impose heavier penalties on copyright infringements.

"Fighting intellectual-property theft is a worldwide endeavour," Tan said.

"As the Chinese middle class grows, it is more likely they will be willing to pay for quality online content," he added.