China’s leading video streamers iQiyi, Tencent and Alibaba’s Youku are all fierce competitors, but they rallied together Friday to present an unusual united front against rival Bilibili for hosting unauthorized videos of “Friends: The Reunion” illegally on its platform.
The three streamers held the rights to officially broadcast HBO Max’s “Friends” special, which they released in China at 3 p.m. local time on Thursday, May 27. All three cut around six minutes of footage, entirely deleting appearances by musicians BTS, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, as well as LGBTQ fans, among other scenes.
Within hours of the official release, uncensored pirated versions of the show appeared on Bilibili, a platform initially more popular with Gen Z users interested in anime, comics and games (ACG) that has now become more mainstream and comparable to YouTube. Videos there are posted by users, not the platform itself.
In response, Tencent Video, iQiyi and Youku all issued similarly worded statements Friday expressing their “severe condemnation” of the site.
iQiyi wrote that the platform was guilty of “disrespecting of intellectual property, flagrant piracy and behavior that undermines of order of the online video industry.” Tencent denounced the site for “severely harming the legitimate rights and interests of both the content creators and the rights holders.”
The trio called on industry players and citizens at large to respect IP laws to create a “healthy copyright environment.”
Some on Chinese social media remarked on the strange irony of platforms that heavily censored the show trumpeting the importance of protecting source material.
“May I ask if your censored versions also respect the content creators, then?,” said one observer.
Numerous others wrote that they felt it hypocritical of Tencent, iQiyi and Youku to gang up on a rival for something they were all once guilty of.
“I’m laughing to death. Which of these four sites didn’t get their start in piracy?” one wrote, while another commented: “These three firms were full of so-called pirated copies, but now that they’ve eaten their fill and wiped themselves clean, they pretend like they have nothing to do with it.”
Both Alibaba and Tencent are investors in NASDAQ-listed Bilibili, which established a secondary listing in Hong Kong in late March.
One of the most popular uncensored versions of “Friends: The Reunion” hosted by Bilibili had garnered at least 187,000 times and more than 7,000 bullet comments as of early Friday morning local time. It had been taken down by early Saturday morning local time, with the site stating that it was “temporarily unavailable for viewing due to copyright reasons.”
A new version of China’s copyright law will come into effect on June 1, which establishes a stricter system of fines for infringements and will step up oversight of short video platforms in particular, among other changes.
All four of the streamers have obtained the China rights to all ten seasons of “Friends,” which will go up in the country later this year.
Commenting on the upcoming release, one Weibo user said that Bilibili’s copyright woes hadn’t inspired him to shift his loyalties.
“I’ll still choose Bilibili to watch the show because the platform has no ads,” he said. “To be honest, internet users don’t care who holds the rights or who’s pirating.”