China tightens online pirated content laws

The interpretation could make Chinese Internet firms more liable for unlicensed content on their sites

China's Internet firms will need to better screen their websites for unlicensed digital works or be held responsible for infringement, according to a proposed judicial interpretation from the country's supreme court.

The court on Sunday released the proposed interpretation of China's Internet infringement laws, taking a stricter stance on how websites can be held liable for promoting unlicensed copyrighted works such as movies, music, and books.

Under the interpretation, companies can be held liable if the unlicensed works are recommended to users in certain ways. This could include the unlicensed work being featured on a company site that ranks content based on popularity, or if an infringing product is promoted through a description and link.

Liability can also be determined if companies knowingly allowed users to upload unlicensed content. A court can look at what measures the company took to stop the infringement, as well as what safeguards are already in place to prevent further unlicensed works from being uploaded.

In the past, companies have complained China's safe harbor policies have shielded Internet firms from facing the legal consequences of their users uploading pirated digital content to their sites, said Zhao Zhanling, a legal expert on the country's IT laws. While companies often comply and delete the content, users can easily change their accounts and re-upload the unlicensed content over and over again, he said.

"People have felt Chinese Internet firms are abusing the safe harbor principles," Zhao said. "But now if a link to the unlicensed work is found on a company website's top ten list for users, the company will be liable for it."

Under the judicial interpretation, companies have one work day to remove unlicensed videos from their websites, once formally notified of the infringement by the license holders. Other unlicensed works must be removed in five work days.

The judicial interpretation comes as some Chinese companies have stepped up effort to remove unlicensed content from their websites. The country's largest search engine, Baidu, had previously been accused of promoting illegal music downloads through its websites. But last year, the company signed an agreement with major record companies to buy licenses for their songs. Baidu did not respond to a request for comment.

Youku, one of China's largest online video sites, said the company already adheres to strict procedures to prevent unlicensed content from being uploaded, or to remove it. "We have been compliant with international standards for a long time, so we don't think this will have an impact at all," said company spokeswoman Jean Shao.

China's supreme court has asked the public to respond to the recommendations by June 1, before they are finalized.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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