Baidu in a copyright war
By Athena Hou (China IP)
Updated: 2011-05-04

Baidu in a copyright war

The Internet search engine giant Baidu received on March 15 a denounce letter from 50 writers, quite a few are nationwide well-known, over its infringement of their copyright. This is the second wave of denouncing over Baidu’s copyright infringement following the musicians’ in 2011.

The letter, signed jointly by 50 writers, including prominent writers like Jia Pingwa, Li Yinhe and Han Han, was issued on March 15. Writers slam Baidu for indulging the posting of their works on Baidu Online Library without their permission. “Taking things without the owner's consent should be called stealing. Baidu has now fallen to a thief corp., stealing our works and creations, robbing us of our rights, and turning the Baidu Online Library into a spoils market,” stated the writers wrathfully in the letter.

Writers claimed to get the infringing works removed from the Library and threatened to stop writing till the infringement ceased. Hou Xiaoqiang, CEO of Shanda Literature Inc., said in his Weibo, a Chinese counterpart of Twitter, that “if the Baidu Library would not be closed, the Chinese original literature is doomed to have no future.”

Writers are not alone. Only one day after the writers’ denouncement had come out, China Audio & Video Association Record Committee issued another denouncement, demanding Baidu suspending its free music download. On January 20, the 13th Month Record Inc., together with its 27 musicians, sent a lawyer’s letter to Baidu, claiming a 6.85-million-yuan (about USD 1.05 million) compensation for copyright infringement.

Confronting with critics and claims in a row, Baidu responded fast by privately contacting Shen Haobo, president of Xiron Publisher Corp. Ltd. and one organizer of the protest, and Gao Xiaosong, a famous musician, and offering special favors to companies and organizations the two represented. Shen and Gao, however, denied the favors by revealing the whole conversation on Weibo, and requiring an official negotiation between Baidu and representatives of the two industries before April 5.

Clearly, Baidu’s efforts to break down the union failed and remained reticent until March 22, when Zhu Guang, vice president of the company responded in an interview that Baidu was to apply a new technique to identify the works with copyright problems, like DNA matching, and intended to kill the pirate uploading from its root. The new technique was planned for use in mid April. Zhu also emphasized Baidu’s intention of bridging the gap between the two sides and bringing a win-win solution through cooperation with the copyright owners.

The March 24 negotiation between Baidu and the writers’ union, had a rather depressing result. After four hours’ seesaw battle, the publisher-writer union declared the rupture of the negotiation. “We see no sincerity of Baidu,” Shen Haobo said after the negotiation, “only one negotiator from Baidu’s side ranks chief director.” Baidu had promised the presence of two vice presidents, and then three chief directors, but finally, only one chief director appeared.

“Our four major appeals have been killed one by one,” said Zhang Hongbo, one of the six negotiators on the writers’ side. The four appeals include public apology and economic compensations to the writers whose works have been posted in Baidu Library without their consent, immediate termination of the infringement, no more supply of works and creations to Aigo Hundred Look e-book service, and a pro-verifying system established for the Library.

Baidu, in contrast, saw no copyright infringement in their operation. Shortly before the negotiation, vice president Zhu Guang expressed in an interview that the Library served solely as a platform, and it was the netizens who uploaded the articles and novels. Zhu further explained that the Library was positioned from the very beginning as a public sharing platform with no edit and modification on any of the works posted. Baidu, therefore, should not be blamed for torts.

The proposed solution from Baidu – the matching system – also faces strong opposition from writers. “Baidu requires all of the writers to register in its system and submit full versions of our works so as to eliminate and prevent the pirate files,” said Shen Haobo, “They try to kidnap everybody in this way. Holding our works in full versions helps them to promote the digital publication and obtain monopoly afterwards.”

Law experts may have a say on whether Baidu Library is liable or not. Wang Qian, professor of East China University of Political Science and Law, said in an interview with the Shanghai Mercury that no conclusion could be made on the case so far. According to Professor Wang, Article 22, among others, of the Regulations on the Protection of the Right to Network Dissemination of Information provides that an ISP only bears secondary liability when there is authentic evidence to prove that it is aware of, or has sound reasons to realize, its users’ committing illegal upload without timely deletion, and when it intentionally instigates its users to commit torts of this kind. Such provisions are called the “safe harbor rules”. Baidu, as a search engine, falls under the stipulations, and is thus not subject to all related liabilities.

The “safe harbor rules”, therefore, might save Baidu Library out of the siege. China has a precedent where Tudou, a video ISP, won a copyright lawsuit by taking advantage of these rules in April, 2010. As the negotiation broke down, the writers decided to carry on their fight against Baidu. A favorable turn then showed up when Baidu made an announcement on March 26, saying sorry for having hurt some writers’ feelings, and promising to eliminate works with copyright problems within three days.

Unfortunately, writers refused to buy Baidu’s amicable allowance this time, either. “Baidu has been hurting not only some writers, but the whole industry. They should figure out the civil and even criminal liabilities of their torts.” said Zhang Hongbo, deputy executive director of China Written Works copyright Society. But he also regarded Baidu’s quick response unexpected and worth paying attention to. Shen states in his Weibo on March 27 that their further joint statement would be postponed due to Baidu’s action. Other activities would be suspended too to see how much Baidu could live up to its words.

Till 10:30a.m. March 30, files in Baidu Library reduced to 17,014,080, with only 745 literary works left. Li Yanhong, CEO of Baidu, said at an IT leader summit held in Shenzhen on March 29 that he would have no option but to shut down Baidu Library if no valid solutions came out.

Baidu is not the only Internet giant that has ever sunk into copyright disputes. Late this March, the multinational search engine Google stopped its book scanning for which 150 million books have already been completed when a New York court rejected its appeal of building a digital library. Google, however, showed no sign of giving up. It planned to promote a reform on relevant laws in the future.

Netizens, on the contrary, perceived the dispute with mixed feelings. “Those who use Baidu Library are mostly students. If we need paid materials, we’d rather go to other websites with more affluent and authoritative sources.” A netizen left such a message on, a large Chinese news website.

On March 13, Yan Xiaohong, deputy director general of the State Copyright Bureau disclosed that the revising of the Copyright Law had entered the legislation phase. For the publishers and writers who have experienced so much in their battle against copyright infringement, and Baidu which regards itself innocent in copyright disputes, a new legislation may help dispel the clouds and see the sun.

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