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Visual China faces copyright controversy after accusing photographer of infringement

By Xu Zhesheng and Cao Yin | | Updated: 2023-08-17 20:58
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The Visual China Group logo. [Photo/VCG]

Stock-image platform Visual China became entangled in a copyright dispute after it accused a photographer of copyright infringement for using his own photos.

On Tuesday, photographer Dai Jianfeng stated in an online post that he received a call from Visual China, alleging he had violated the company's copyright on 173 photos and demanding compensation of 80,000 yuan ($11,000). Dai asserted that the photos in question were taken by himself and that he had never authorized Visual China to use these images or uploaded them to the platform.

A Visual China staff member told Jiupai News on Tuesday that the company employs a reverse image search function to compare internet images with those in their database. If substantial similarity is found, measures are taken to protect the company's copyright.

Later on Tuesday, Visual China stated in an official post that they would "keep communicating with the photographer and properly handle the misunderstanding."

Visual China asserted that, as Getty Images' exclusive partner in the Chinese mainland, they hold selling rights for the images in question.

The images were initially authorized for sale by Dai to Stocktrek Images, an image provider, with Getty Images subsequently obtaining authorization from Stocktrek Images.

However, Dai rejected Visual China's position on Wednesday, stating, "There is no misunderstanding." He verified with Stocktrek Images, which explicitly informed him that Visual China lacks the authority to sell his works and that Getty Images is not authorized to redistribute his works.

According to a report by Modern Express, a media outlet in Jiangsu province, Stocktrek Images confirmed on Wednesday that it was not authorized to sell Dai's works in the Chinese mainland and was attempting to contact Getty Images to withdraw these photos.

The images in question were removed from Visual China's website on Wednesday.

This is not the first instance of Visual China being involved in copyright disputes. In 2019, the stock-image platform was penalized by the Tianjin Cyberspace Administration with a fine of 300,000 yuan ($41,000) for publishing images with sensitive and harmful content.

Earlier that year, Visual China was caught falsely claiming copyright to black hole pictures. Additionally, the company faced questions about its right to sell images of the national flag and national emblem on its website.

Zhao Zhanling, a Beijing lawyer specializing in intellectual property disputes, remarked that it's too early to discuss copyright infringement based on the current responses and statements from the photographer, Visual China, Stocktrek Images, and Getty Images.

"The information is insufficient to determine the rightful owner," he said. "It's crucial to learn more specifics about the agreement between the photographer and Stocktrek Images."

"Determining the scope of photo usage and whether it involves an exclusive license in the agreement is a prerequisite for discussing whether Visual China has the right to publish the pictures and demand compensation," he added.

Liu Bin, another IP lawyer from Beijing Zhongwen Law Firm, also pointed out that photographers can specify the use of their works, such as where the images will be published, online or offline, when signing agreements with gallery companies.

"In short, such agreements are civil contracts between two parties. If there are special usage restrictions, creators need to clearly state them in the contract," he added.

Established in June 2000, VCG offers a variety of digital content, owning 400 million images, 30 million videos, and 350,000 pieces of music, according to its annual report last year.

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