If legal protections for intellectual property move too slowly in China, creators still have some recourse: public shaming. Dozens of Chinese authors, including China’s most widely read blogger Han Han, recently confronted search giant Baidu and its CEO Robin Li for facilitating online piracy of books on a massive scale through its Baidu Wenku (Library) service. Although the authors’ campaign led Baidu to remove an estimated 2.8 million copyrighted files from its service, many issues remain unresolved, including compensation for past piracy and mechanisms to prevent future infringement. The controversy presents an opportunity to explore the powers and limits of public pressure in framing a case and compelling compliance outside of the court system.
At the end of March, around fifty Chinese authors signed a letter to Baidu requesting compensation for illegal downloads of their copyrighted materials and asking that Baidu install a system to review uploaded documents to determine whether or not they infringe on an author’s copyright. When initial negotiations broke down, the backlash from Chinese authors was considerable, with numerous angry and, naturally, well-written essays criticizing Baidu and Robin Li appearing on the internet.
While the creators’ complaints received coverage in both the English and Chinese language media, perhaps the most important commentary came from Han Han, who used his online megaphone to frame the issue as not only Baidu’s exploitation of China’s lax IP protections but also Robin Li’s personal moral failing in two acerbic blog posts. Within days, Baidu had issued an apology to writers, promised to remove millions of files, and arranged to continue discussions with industry representatives regarding compensation and Baidu’s planned infringement prevention system.
The use of public pressure to push an ideal of intellectual property protection appears to be a powerful social development in favor of creators with significant commercial implications, but the effects on China’s legal development may be mixed. We will report developments on this as they arise.