Copyright Dispute Appeal: Chen Zhe vs. Yu Zheng et al., [Beijing High People’s Court, (2015) Gao Min (Zhi) Zhong Zi No. 1039 Civil Judgment]
In October 1992, Chen Zhe (陈喆), a romance fiction author writing under the pseudonym Qiong Yao (琼瑶), wrote a script called“Plum Blossom Sear” (《梅花烙》). The script was never formally published but was used by a company called Yi Ren Communication Co., Ltd. (Yi Ren) to film a TV drama series “Plum Blossom Sear”, with 21 episodes in total. The series premiered in Taiwan on October 13th, 1993, and was then broadcasted on Hu Nan TV Station in mainland China, with its content highly identical to the original script.
The novel “Plum Blossom Sear”, adapted according to the script, was completed on June 30th, 1993, and published on September 15th of the same year in Taiwan and later in mainland China, with its major plot line essentially consistent with the script. The novel came under the name of Chen Zhe.
On June 17th, 2012, Yu Zheng completed writing a script called “The Palace 3: The Lost Daughter” (《宫锁连城》) with 20 episodes and published the same on April 8th, 2014, indicating his own name as author. A TV drama series “The Palace 3: The Lost Daughter” was filmed according to such script, with two different versions: 1) the undeleted online version with 44 episodes and 2) the TV broadcast version with 63 episodes. The latter premiered on Hu Nan TV Station on April 8th, 2014.
Chen Zhe considered that the “The Palace 3: The Lost Daughter” script was infringing her copyright on the “Plum Blossom Sear”script, even though the character relationships and storylines were more complicated than the original script. Chen Zhe filed a legal action for infringement mainly targeting the first portion of “The Palace 3: The Lost Daughter”.
The Beijing No. 3 Intermediate People’s Court held that Yu Zheng et al. had infringed Chen Zhe’s adaptation and filming rights related to her work. The Court ordered: 1) the producers of the TV drama “The Palace 3: The Lost Daughter” to cease all acts of reproduction, distribution and dissemination immediately; 2) the scriptwriter Yu Zheng to make a public apology to Chen Zhe on Sina, Sohu, LeTV, and ifeng.com in order to eliminate the adverse effect; and 3) Yu Zheng et al. to compensate Chen Zhe a total of five millions RMB to cover her economic loss and reasonable litigation costs. The Beijing High People’s Court ruled to maintain the initial verdict.
This case garnered a lot of press attention and made a significant societal impact. The methodology and criteria for finding “material similarity” between literature was extensively explained, yielding concrete instruction towards how to differentiate “idea” from “expression” in terms of plot selection and advancement, as well as structural arrangement. The court decision of this case clearly reflects the legislative intent of the Copyright Law in encouraging and protecting original works and the judiciary’s policy of enhanced IPR protection, which is expected to navigate the development of the cultural and film industries.