‘Steel, not tofu’

China's leaders say they mean business on copyright laws

Karaoke is practically a national sport in China, and a decision by legislators to implement copyright fees on songs used in KTV parlors was one of the most potent signs yet that the government is serious about implementing copyright laws.

Everyone goes to KTV parlors to sing and hang out; to threaten the livelihood of the karaoke bars was to threaten something very dear to the Chinese people.

But the message that China is serious about copyright is coming from the highest sources: The country’s top leaders, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, have both openly underlined China’s commitment to the protection of intellectual property rights (IPR).

As Wen put it: “China’s IPR protection efforts will carry the full force of steel and will definitely not be as soft as tofu.”

A crackdown on piracy is also aimed at the growing market for pirate DVDs of top-selling U.S. skeins such as “The Sopranos,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” as well as many Korean TV shows.

The pirates employ language students to provide often excellent subtitles for the shows, which then are released in glossy packaging way ahead of their U.S. release. Quality varies but is generally good, and this represents a major dent in profits for foreign TV companies.

Wen has called for more time to deal with copyright piracy, as China is a developing country, and has said this is something the rest of the world should understand.

The politicos say the main reason China needs to protect copyright is because the country needs ideas and innovation if it is to keep growing at its current rate.

China has adopted the international-standard copyright patent and trademark laws and other IPR-related laws and is a party to many major international conventions on IPR protection. It also has signed bilateral agreements and established dialogues on IPR mechanisms.

Copyright owners complain they receive nothing in return for their efforts in China and that, even though the Music Copyright Society of China began to collect fees from some KTV clubs in the country in 2001, revenues are still low and income from KTV parlors is often negligible.

In August, the National Copyright Administration published a draft standard of $1.50 per KTV room per day. The copyright owners say it’s low but better than the little or nothing they’ve been used to getting.

The KTV bosses are looking to pay 12¢ a day per room.

But Wang Ziqiang, copyright department director and spokesman for the National Copyright Administration, says the disagreement over the fee would not stand in the way of the legislation.

Working with groups like the Motion Picture Assn., the government has beefed up efforts to stamp out piracy, set up task forces on copyright and opened 50 centers for handling IPR violation complaints across the nation.

The country has issued its first set of rules governing online copyright, which analysts say will shield some of the country’s top search engine operators from accusations of copyright infringement.

The thrust of the law is aimed at protecting copyright owners while at the same time encouraging the dissemination of content online. There has been a spate of legal rumblings in the area of copyright protection as new laws come into play.

Earlier this year the Intl. Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), which represents 1,400 major and independent companies in more than 70 countries, threatened a lawsuit against Yahoo China for copyright infringement as part of the music biz’s efforts to crack down on piracy.

And last year, seven record companies accused China’s top search engine, Baidu.com, of directing users to Web sites offering free pirated downloads of their songs; the Netco was ordered by a Beijing judge to stop.

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