Uprooting the Stems of Copyright Infringement in China

Last week, I came across a video published on WeChat (a Chinese social media app) by FindingSchool, a Chinese platform for elite United States of America school inquiries. I was shocked to find my own face in the video: they had taken one of my YouTube videos, cut its length, and reposted it as one of their own. Unfortunately, this was all done without having asked for my permission or given me any credit. The video appeared on several Chinese social media platforms, and in just a few hours, it had been shared hundreds of times. I reported them, and they took the video down. This is an example of copyright infringement: a serious issue in China that, in my opinion, is rooted in the culture and not the law.  

Copyright infringement is pervasive in China. A reporter for the Consumer News and Business Channel (CNBC), Qian Chen, agrees. In 2018, she wrote that “with nearly every news article I’ve written for, within a few hours of publishing, I could easily search certain keywords and find a Chinese-language doppelgänger online.” She also remarked that in addition to inappropriate republishing, her content would be misconstrued over the translation. The same applies to other fields. For instance, if you have enough money, previous SAT test questions that are illegal to share can easily be bought from college consulting services. 

The problem isn’t the law. A decade ago, almost everything online could be downloaded for free. Over the past five years, however, greater judicial efforts toward intellectual property (IP) rights in China have given stronger protection to Chinese innovators. According to a report published by the China National Intellectual Property Administration, courts concluded more than 2.19 million IP cases in 2018 to 2022, a 221.1 percent increase compared to the previous five year span. In addition to longer serving times, the maximum compensation for copyright infringement has grown from 500,000 RMB (approximately 73,000 dollars) to 5 million RMB (approximately 730,000 dollars). Evidently, the government has already placed greater judicial emphasis on the issue. 

However, copyright infringement continues to exist, perhaps less formally but still extensively in daily life. My own experience, though trivial, illustrates the degree of normality associated with breaking IP rights. I argue that this results from the culture –– in bare terms, the Chinese public simply doesn’t see copyright infringement as severe. 

For example: in the comments section of my video that FindingSchool published, nobody asked if they had obtained permission to republish my video. It was taken for granted that a video obviously not developed by their company, which was solely run by adults, could be watched, liked, favorited, and shared by the public as part of their account. Additionally, no form of apology was issued after they took the video down. In comparison, if this case had involved the courts, monetary compensation would have followed. Nothing happened because the people failed to recognize the problem.

To me, one of the biggest reasons for the copyright infringement culture in China is the lack of education surrounding it. In Chinese schools, the idea of citation is rarely mentioned. Traditional Chinese education emphasizes the importance of modeling after their master’s works and including acknowledgements, but does not enforce clear citations. Consequently, ideas from published authors can be borrowed and used as one’s own without explicit credits. As teachers value the “idea modeling” itself more than where the ideas within come from, punishment for the lack of credits is often negligible. In the U.S., however, a similar case would count as a violation of academic integrity and result in inexcusable consequences. Without having been taught the importance of citing, it is understandable why copyright infringement is embedded so deeply into Chinese culture. 

Secondly, in a country that has experienced extraordinary technological advancement in the past three decades and continues to grow, Chinese companies are focused on expediting the country’s growth, which aligns with China’s current philosophy. With collective advancement as the ultimate goal, individual protection needs to bear less importance: more protected work and resources can obstruct efficiency. 

Though modifying a grounded cultural norm is hard, I suggest a change in the education system to alleviate China’s copyright infringement issue. Instead of prioritizing the content of an essay over its citations, teachers should emphasize the two equally. The reason is simple: the creator of a body of work should get as much credit  as the work itself. To demonstrate this, teachers could introduce a literary work with an introduction to the author. 

Regarding larger administrative agencies, such as those run by the government, I understand that their goals will not change in the foreseeable future as they must stay closely aligned with the country’s stagnant philosophy. In turn, I’d like to highlight that the Third Amendment to the Chinese Copyright Law enacted in 2020, which was responsible for China’s IP growth in the last three years, was created to protect Chinese innovators. Though it is unclear whom companies are being protected from, they should not take this law for granted and should interpret it as a reminder against internal plagiarism. 

It may take centuries, or even longer, for China’s copyright infringement issue to truly subside. Realistically, it would take both a change in cultural thought and China’s philosophy, which I do not anticipate happening anytime soon, if not ever. But if slowly, it does, I will be excited to witness its future.