China's first regulation on online copyright, implemented on July 1, gives search engine operators some legal status and protection from copyright infringement claims, according to industry experts.
"Under the regulation, search engines providing links can be exempted from copyright infringement claims," said Wang Bin, secretary general of the Online Copyright Alliance of the Internet Society of China.
In September 2005, seven record companies accused Baidu.com, China's largest search engine, of offering free pirated downloads of songs. The claim triggered a spate of legal cases against search engine operators.
However, the new regulation stipulates that Internet service providers which merely offer search services and links are not liable for copyright infringement if they remove links to pirated content at the request of copyright owners. However, if the search engines persist and provide links to pirated content, they would be deemed to share liability for infringement along with websites that offer the pirated content.
"It means search engines would not be directly responsible for pirated products they provide links to," Wang explained.
Government statistics show that China has over 111 million Internet users and Internet companies are beginning to focus on providing sound and image content.
"Copyright has become a prominent issue for websites and laws and regulations are needed to guarantee the websites' legal right to provide content," Wang said.
He believed the new regulation would encourage Internet content providers to view intellectual property rights protection more seriously.
Baidu.com welcomed the new regulation and believed it would give search engines a legal status and help promote cooperation with copyright owners.
"Baidu hopes to enter into mutually beneficial cooperation agreements with record companies. The protection of online copyrights requires the coordination of the whole industrial chain," said Wang Dong, brand and marketing director of Baidu.
Music searches are Baidu's most popular service after website searches. Last October, it launched an alliance with six record companies. That number has since increased to 30.
The regulation spells opportunity and responsibility for search engines, according to He Qifeng, an analyst with the China Center for Information Industry Development.
"It lays a framework for Internet service providers and clarifies their liabilities."
But the regulation was hard to implement to some extent, He said. Due to the large number of pirate websites, copyright owners are finding it difficult to list them all, and even if they could, search engines might be reluctant to remove all the errant links, particularly if this affects general search results, He said.
"Search engines might find themselves in a dilemma then."
However, Wang pointed out that if copyright owners fail to first inform the search engine operator of the infringement and chose to proceed immediately with legal action, the regulation gives no guidance to courts on how to rule in such cases.
Wang said the Online Copyright Alliance would discuss the issue with Internet companies, and judicial and legislative departments.
(Xinhua News Agency July 6, 2006)