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China’s top corruption drama battles piracy

China’s top corruption drama battles piracy
In the Name of the People became an instant hit when it debuted on March 28 and has become one of the most-watched TV programmes in Chinese history. Source: Handout

China’s top corruption drama battles piracy

BEIJING — A glossy Chinese television drama, inspired by the country’s ongoing anti-graft campaign, has become the latest victim of rampant piracy, fuelled by slack laws, weak enforcement and the absence of punitive fines.

A story about China’s public prosecutors who dredge up a series of scandals as they investigate shady land deals, organised crime and reforms, In the Name of the People became an instant hit when it debuted on March 28 and has become one of the most-watched TV programmes in Chinese history.

Yet the entire 55-episode series, seen as groundbreaking for its life-size portrayal of Chinese politics, was leaked on video-sharing sites and cloud-storage services last week, showing that China still lacks the force to rein in widespread copyright violations.

China’s state prosecutors’ office, which bankrolled the US$12 million (S$16.8 million) production, and other producers issued a joint statement last Thursday, saying they had reported the copyright infringement to police, and urged platforms including cloud services, e-commerce shops and video hosting sites to remove all unauthorised versions.

By the time of the leaks, the show was only halfway through its first round of exclusive airing on Hunan Television, which had paid 220 million yuan (S$44.6 million) for the rights, according to Chinese media – a figure unconfirmed by the channel. It is simultaneously being featured legally on major video sites such as Youku Tudo, iQiyi and Sohu Video. The amounts they paid for rights have not been disclosed.

The latest leaks were called “robbery in broad daylight” by Mr Li Xuezheng, an executive of a production company affiliated with China’s military.

“Piracy of trending TV series is still common, because of weak copyright infringement laws in the nation,” said intellectual property lawyer You Yunting. Because of inconsequential fines and administrative penalties, not carrying pirated content puts minor, often unlicensed, video sites at a disadvantage against competitors, said Mr You.

A day after producers lodged the complaint, the show was included in a Key Copyright Protection list, published each month by the National Copyright Administration of China. Police give priority to investigating leaks involving titles on this list.

Downloadable files for the full 55-episodes of the show could no longer be found on the Internet in China in a search on Tuesday by Caixin.

But a poor-quality version, with “sample video for screening purposes” labelled across the images, can still be found on YouTube, which is blocked on the Chinese mainland and can only be accessed with a VPN.

Each leaked episode on YouTube has been watched about three million times.

Under vague copyright laws, video-sharing sites and cloud-storage service providers are not required to proactively weed out pirated content. They are only required to take action when complaints are made by copyright holders – but there is no deadline or minimum penalty specified by law.

In the past, other hit titles such as the historic drama The Legend of Mi Yue and detective series Lao Jiu Men have been leaked in full while they were still being aired. Although producers reported the copyright infringements to police, the cases ended unresolved and without punishment for violators.

Mr You said that interest from authorities and the clout of its producers may help In the Name of the People bring wrongdoers to justice in this case.

“But, in most cases, the fines for violations are small and hardly publicised,” he said. “That is why pirates will ignore copyright laws again and again.” CAIXIN