China piracy crackdown nets limited success

Producers say more than fines needed

BEIJING -- A four-month Chinese government crackdown on Internet piracy that ended Jan. 1 made a mere dent in a rapidly growing problem, a leading copyright enforcement official said Thursday.

Movie, music and software piracy is rampant in this country of 140 million netizens and 843,000 Web sites. China is the world's No. 2 Internet market after the U.S., and consumers here eagerly seek entertainment that cannot be bought legally because of government censorship and trade barriers.

From September through December, nationwide copyright enforcement authorities handled 436 cases, collected fines of about 700,000 yuan ($90,000), confiscated eight computers and 71 illegal servers and shut 205 illegal Web sites, Yan Xiaohong, deputy commissioner of the National Copyright Administration of China, told a roomful of reporters.

"We had to set limited goals to be able to achieve them in a limited period of time," Yan said. "Given the spread and advancement of technology, it's very difficult to manage and administrate. To expect an ideal situation in a short time doesn't adhere to the reality in China."

Working off tips solicited from domestic and foreign copyright holders, such as the China Software Alliance and the MPA, the NCAC directly administered 302 cases in 31 Chinese provinces, Yan said.

Of the 130 tips received by foreign copyright holders, 90% of the cases were "dealt with and properly handled," Yan said.

One northeast China cyber cafe charging about 65 yuan ($8.30) for four or five illegal movie downloads a month was fined 8,000 yuan ($1,025) and had its servers confiscated, Yan said. The penalty was imposed in adherence with Chinese law.

Critics say that administrative fines rather than criminal punishments including jail time are inadequate deterrents.

"Properly handled? No way, not even close," Beijing-based film producer Jimmy Wu said. "A fine of only 8,000 yuan is encouraging piracy."

Wu and a former NCAC lawyer are drafting a proposal that would make piracy a crime drawing stiffer penalties. They hope it will get attention at the National Party Congress later this year.

"Piracy cost me at least 20 million yuan ($2.5 million) in boxoffice revenue," said Wu, whose last film, "Curiosity Kills the Cat" (2006), was easily found online for illegal download on Thursday.

Yan said he understands copyright holders' frustration with pirates who, once busted, are able to return to illegal activities after absorbing small fines as a cost of doing business.

"I can't say the punishment is too lenient, nor can I say it's too harsh, but now it's public and the press and experts will review the law," Yan said.

Yan divided pirates into two categories. One kind shuts down when busted but then changes his business name and resumes trade, Yan said. The NCAC and the police will work hard to catch these criminals, he said.

A second, more defiant type of pirate continues to use the same Internet domain name, and Yan said that the NCAC will work more closely with state-run telecommunications authorities to create a "blacklist" barring reregistration for online services by known criminals using different names.

Just last week, the MPA reported to the NCAC its latest findings of 40 Chinese Web sites known to have carried illegal copies of MPA member-company films, Mike Ellis, the group's Asia-Pacific regional director, said in an e-mail.

Ellis said 11 of the sites were shut down and nine sites had, since the MPA's previous complaint, removed files infringing its members' titles. The other 20 sites were still offering pirated content under their previous domain names or new ones, he said.

"In general, the Chinese government is responsive to our complaints. However, it's clear that in some cases, the punishment meted out to offenders is not a deterrent to recidivism," Ellis said.