China Fans Volunteer to Subtitle Content for Internet Auds — Pirated or Not

Viki Chines Subtitling Crowdsourced
Donghyun Lim for Variety

Chinese enthusiasts of “House of Cards,” “The Big Bang Theory,” Japan’s “Hanzawa Naoki” or South Korea’s “Running Man” can satisfy the craving for their favorite shows almost as quickly as they can be uploaded and subtitled. But while obtaining the content is considered piracy, the subtitling operations are run not by nefarious hoodlums looking to make a buck, but by communities of fans.

“We are completely driven by passion. We won’t receive any cash compensation,” says website Zimuzu, a fan subtitling group in China that has more than 100,000 followers on the nation’s social-media websites.

Zimuzu subtitlers work together to create captions in Chinese for the foreign- language films and TV they love, even if the work they do is considered piracy.

“I think it is something cool and beneficial (to others),” says subtitler Beining. For the past three years, the 21-year-old Chinese student, who now studies in Canada, has been running the ACI Chinese Fansub Group. The website carries a disclaimer in English, maintaining that it is a “not-for-profit voluntary team that produces Chinese subtitles for documentaries not aired in China, (and) which operates entirely within the legislation of (the People’s) Republic of China, where it is legal to do so.”

The Chinese government’s policies help the fan-subtitling groups’ growth. In April, officials announced that any overseas TV series must submit its entire season for state inspection before it can be released online, creating months of delay as foreign content is vetted — and creating bigger demand for pirated and fan-subtitled material.

Simply put, Chinese fans don’t want to wait.

While there are various methods used to obtain foreign content, Chinese students living abroad are most often the sources, says Heeche Chen, a 24-year-old civil engineering graduate student, who studies in China.

Fans use software like KeyholeTV to tape a show in its home country, and transmit it back to China. While the methods of China’s censors may aid fan subtitling groups, authorities have been cracking down on them. In November, two of the biggest Chinese fan sub groups, YYeTs and Shooter.cn, were shut down due to allegations of copyright infringement. YYeTs has been shut down five times since it was launched in 2004; the Motion Picture Assn. of America has cited it as a major source of Internet piracy.

Beining recalled his experience of subtitling the controversial comedy “The Interview” last year. Though his group was the first to upload the film, it received pressure from authorities to take it down within 24 hours.

Chen admits that fan subtitling violates the rights of the others, but she also argues that the community helps to cultivate interest and demand for imported entertainment. HBO and Netflix have made deals with video-streaming sites like Sohu and Youku Tudou to distribute their subtitled content in China. The first and second seasons of “House of Cards” have been viewed more than 200 million times on Sohu.

The Singaporean start-up Viki, meanwhile, has turned fan subtitling into a legitimate business.

CEO Tammy Nam described the company as the global version of Hulu, and says it translates shows into 200 languages. The site negotiates licenses directly with studios and networks, and then lets the volunteer community do the subtitling.

Its website contains a vast array of content from Asia and the U.S., and it solicits users to join the band of subtitlers, offering online tutorials. The site not only streams subtitled content, but also features online discussion rooms and branded products. It has partnered with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages to highlight the role of technology in helping preserve languages that are headed to extinction. Part of its business model is a premium content pass, which allows users ad-free streaming, for $3.99 a month.

Subtitling communities in general need to work fast. Chen says a 60-minute drama can take up to 10 people to subtitle from start to finish, and they use social media to farm out work. Some groups are able to fashion a subtitled episode within 24 hours after it has aired in its home territory. (“Some of us take speed and quality very seriously,” added Chen, noting that footnotes are added to explain cultural-specific terms; for instance, at the end of each “House of Cards” episode, there are explanations about how the plots reference actual American politics.)

Meanwhile, in China, as long as censors demand more control, the Internet will find a way to get around the rules. Chen’s love of Korean entertainment inspired her to learn the language when she was a teen. She began writing fan subtitles in 2011, when she couldn’t find the subtitled version of her favorite talkshow, “Radio Star.”

“I started doing fan sub because I liked Korean dramas,” Chen says. “I wanted more people to know about them.”