Chinese New Year Films Undermined By Web Piracy

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More than 35,300 suspected links to pirated versions of Chinese New Year’s films and major holiday TV programs are available online, despite government directives to crack down on piracy, new data from China shows.

Rampant piracy did not stop the seven new year’s blockbusters released on Feb. 12 from sending China’s February box office soaring to new heights of $1.74 billion and counting. But it has likely nonetheless caused significant losses for the country’s exhibitors, already hard hit by the pandemic over the past year.

Around 26,900 of the reported links lead users to pirated versions of four of the new year’s tentpoles, according to a report from the government-affiliated 12426 Copyright Monitoring Center, which has ties to the central propaganda bureau-backed Copyright Society of China, a professional association. A further 5,000 links led to key TV extravaganzas like the annual CCTV Spring Festival Gala.

The tally of links is currently lower than the number that cropped up for Chinese New Year films in 2018 and 2019, but is incomplete and still rising. In 2019, at least 38,900 links to pirated HD versions of eight new releases were discovered, leading to an estimated $122 million in box office losses, state media reports said.

This year, the children’s animation “Boonie Bears: The Wild Life” was the most pirated film of the bunch, with 10,686 links. It had been plagued by piracy since its aborted release in 2020, with the first illegal link appearing all the way back in early January 2020. The second most pirated was “Detective Chinatown 3” with 9,099 links, the first of which was detected the day after its premiere.

The third most impacted blockbuster was box office frontrunner “Hi, Mom,” with 5,043 links that started appearing three days after its debut. The fourth place piracy victim was “The Yin Yang Master” with 2,062 links, first emerging four days after its release.

Even these figures likely do not reflect the full picture of pirated versions available for mass download via other methods like Baidu Cloud, which are more difficult to trace.

The widespread piracy has occurred despite a joint statement declaring a strong crackdown on copyright infringement and bootleg recordings issued Feb. 8, 2021 by the country’s National Copyright Administration (NCA), National Film Bureau, and an investigation bureau under its ministry of public security. The NCA subsequently issued two “copyright protection early warning lists” that singled out the very new year’s films and TV programs that were most pirated as subject to special attention.

The director of the Copyright Monitoring Center Wu Guanyong told the Global Times newspaper that enforcement is difficult because there are “tens of millions” of individual social media accounts sharing links to pirated content in China, as well as thousands of small-scale piracy sites based abroad. “Platform review takes time to carry out. Currently, the rate of blocking infringing links on mainstream online platforms has exceeded 95% a day,” he said.

Chinese law dictates that profiting from copyright infringement be punished by up to three years in prison or criminal detention and a fine in more minor cases, or a maximum of seven years and a fine in more serious cases.

That hasn’t appeared to deter violators. On some online platforms, vendors offered viewers deals such as the ability to view six new year titles for just $1.38 (RMB8.88), about a sixth of the average ticket price over the holiday. Others advertised HD and 1080p versions.

Small websites are the main channels through which links are disseminated, the report said, accounting for 66% of links currently being monitored. The second most common place where they spread was via social networking platforms, which accounted for 26% of those being watched. Nearly 80% of the small websites in question operated without an ICP license — the permit issued by Beijing that allows websites to operate legally in the country.

Around 80% of the web server IPs hosting pirated content tracked by the Copyright Monitoring Center were located outside of mainland China, with half of them in the U.S. and 30% of them in Hong Kong. For those on the Chinese mainland, IP addresses were most concentrated in Shandong, Jiangsu, Hunan and Guangdong provinces, and Beijing. Arizona-headquartered web hosting firm GoDaddy accounted for about 35% of the domain names for the small websites under watch. 

When it came to television, more than 75% of pirated links monitored by the center were for CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala, while Dragon TV’s competing spring gala accounted for the rest. The majority of the infringing links were distributed via news platforms.

As of early Thursday morning local time, “Hi, Mom” led the box office with a cumulative gross of $681 million (RMB4.4 billion), trailed by second place “Detective Chinatown 3” with $644 million (RMB4.16 billion) in sales, and “A Writer’s Odyssey” in third with $124 million (RMB798 million).