Black Hole image ownership triggers heated debate

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Chinese researchers discuss the imaging methods of the image of the black hole in Shanghai Astronomical Observatory (SAO), in east China's Shanghai, April 9, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

Visual China Group could not have expected the first image of a black hole in space to result in the company being the target of public criticism and triggering debate about copyright protection nationwide.

The image led to the company, a leading media stock-picture and footage provider, becoming involved in a copyright scandal and being temporarily closed for "rectification" work.

On Friday, the Tianjin Cyberspace Administration, in the city where the company is located, fined it 300,000 yuan ($44,750). The administration said many of the images published by the company had been harmful.

In the meantime, a nationwide campaign to regulate copyright images is being launched.

With the company being questioned for improper use of copyright images, legal professionals said the incident could be a "good thing" if the country learned from the case by improving copyright laws and stepping up management of stock-image platforms.

On April 10, netizens found the first image of the black hole had been added to Visual China Group's stock with a copyright claim, meaning anyone using it without paying the company would be infringing on the copyright.

The next day, the company issued a statement in response to questions about the claim. It said the image of the black hole belonged to the European Southern Observatory and had been authorized for use, but not for commercial purposes.

However, the observatory, a 16-nation intergovernmental organization for ground-based astronomy, said the company never contacted it for any purpose regarding the photo.

It added that the company's behavior in using the "so-called authorization" as copyright to sell the image in China and profit from it was illegal.

The incident quickly triggered public outcry after it swept across social media. But what heightened the outrage and sparked nationwide discussion on copyright was a micro blog from the Communist Youth League of China.

The micro blog posted two photos taken of the company's website, showing images of China's national flag and emblem watermarked as being Visual China Group's copyright and were for sale.

The company said anyone using images of the flag and emblem for magazine covers should pay it at least 1,000 yuan ($149). According to the micro blog, for other commercial uses, the price needed to be further negotiated.

Several large enterprises, including search engine giant Baidu, major retailer Suning and security software provider Qihoo 360, posted comments on the micro blog, saying their own logos had been used by Visual China Group for profit. They said the company claimed to have the copyright for these images.

The company later issued another response, saying images of the national flag and emblem were provided by contracted contributors, and conceding that it had failed to strictly carry out its "review and management duties".

The company also apologized to the public, adding that it had withdrawn the improperly-posted images and would strengthen review of its practices in line with the law.

On the evening on April 11, the Tianjin Cyberspace Administration, where the company is based, summoned senior Visual China Group executives,.

It ordered the company to review all historical stock and remove improper listings, as well as sending a team to inspect the "rectification" work.

On April 12, the National Copyright Administration said on its website it would launch a special crackdown to further regulate copyright image this year to safeguard owners' legitimate rights and interests.

The copyright watchdog also said: "Companies must improve copyright management and handle image copyright in accordance with laws, not abuse them." The same day, the company closed its websites to carry out "self-examination".

Increased disputes

Li Shunde, a senior intellectual property researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, applauded the campaign as a timely and necessary step to regulate those providing stock images.

"We should abide by laws and litigation to protect copyright instead of abusing them to profit improperly," he said.

On April 15, the Shanghai Observer reported that the company, which was founded in June 2000 and partners with the photo agency Getty Images in the United States, had faced increased copyright-related disputes since it set up a special rights protection division in 2016.

The company was involved 2,279 cases in 2017 and 1,908 last year, the report said, adding that most court rulings had been in its favor.

A search by China Daily for the company's name on China Judgments Online, a website operated by the Supreme People's Court that discloses verdicts, resulted in more than 1,600 lawsuits being found, most of them related to copyright.

In April 2017, for example, the company took technology giant Tencent to court and asked for 180,000 yuan in compensation after Tencent used nine Visual China Group images without permission, Beijing Youth Daily reported.

Tencent said the images involved could also be found on other websites, or the company could not prove it had authorization for the photos. The court finally ordered Tencent to pay 40,000 yuan to Visual China, the report added.

Wang Weiwei, a lawyer from the Beijing Zhongwen Law Firm, said, "Mushrooming copyright-related disputes can be acceptable if a stock-image agency, such as Visual China Group, gets authorization for images from copyright owners.

"Any litigation caused by true copyright infringement is no problem and is justified, as it is also to help protect the legitimate rights and interest of the copyright owners," he said.

"But if the stock-image platform doesn't get authorization but still asks for compensation by resorting to litigation, I think such behavior may be an alleged fraud," he said.

The core of the problem lies in whether stock-image providers get authorization from copyright owners, he added.

Zhao Zhanling, a legal researcher who specializes in intellectual property cases at the China University of Political Science and Law, agreed, but said copyright owners and institutes given copyright authorization should respect this right and not abuse it for gain.

He said stock-image companies need to make authorization a priority in their operations and pay more effort to finding a balance between commercial interest and public interest.

The litigation right that is to safeguard copyrights must not be abused, he added.

Laws need to be improved

Although the scandal involving Visual China Group exposed disordered copyright management by stock-image providers, legal professionals said the increased efforts to protect copyright should be applauded.

For example, the National Copyright Administration has launched crackdowns against pirated works every year, aiming to increase copyright protection through administrative measures.

Last year, it took online short videos, audio material, literary articles and music as major targets. It eliminated 1.85 million web links with content that infringed copyright, and confiscated 1.23 million pirated works.

Wang, the Beijing lawyer, said he appreciated government attempts to protect copyright, but said such efforts are still insufficient.

He called for the country to improve copyright-related laws as soon as possible, and especially to issue a specific rule for footage, pictures or other photographic works.

"In my opinion, the price of an image depends on how difficult it was to take the picture and the occasions when will be used," he added.

Chen Jing, another Beijing lawyer, said, "Footage and photos have yet been priced as standardly as written work, and without clear pricing, some companies may sell the images at an unreasonably high price or claim an expensive compensation but fail to make a reasonable payment to the authors," said.

"It results in the authors not being able to have adequate rights protection, consumers paying too much and companies gaining relatively high profits, which, from our current analysis, are illegitimate," said Chen, from the Commerce & Finance Law Office.

She agreed with Wang on improving laws to change the situation, and told China Daily a new version of Chinese Copyright Law is being discussed.

"Contents regarding collective copyright management organizations, including stock image platforms, have been debatable and remain a key issue among lawmakers," she said.

"I believe such copyright agencies will be regulated in the future version of the law after Visual China's incident, and our IP protection will also be further strengthened thanks to the case," she added.

Supervision and self-examination

Different from many comments that criticized the company and its business, Chen said it is "Okay" for stock image platforms to profit from selling images or filing copyright lawsuits.

"Proper commercial operations can help defend the rights of individual creators, as it is difficult and costly for individuals to sift through seas of information and find out who infringes their rights," she said. "Or such platforms create a better environment for copyright owners to easily and effectively safeguard their rights."

But she suggested the country set up a third-party to supervise the platforms' operation to prevent them from exercising the rights beyond the legal scope.

Pan Juanjuan, another IP attorney from DeHeng Law Offices in Shanghai, called for stock image providers to give stricter self-examinations on their source of copyrights, "as the unclear source could also bring them a string of disputes".

She said some stock image platforms that file a lawsuit for one image improperly used remains controversial, adding it is believed to be a waste of judicial resources.

"One company might have improperly used a dozen of pictures on social media then it will face a dozen of lawsuits. The amount of litigations will be huge for judicial resources to tackle," she explained.

She said she hopes a stock image company, regulated with clear authorization, can resort more to non-litigation solutions when dealing with infringement, for example, through negotiation and mediation.

To better regulate the image copyright market and balance the commercial providers, she also suggested the public to set up a shared platform of stock image where uses, authors and content creators can authorize each other.

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