China

How IP protection drove Chinese fans away from Hollywood

The sentencing of China’s largest volunteer subtitle group is a warning message to fans of pirated material.

CEO of Sohu Charles Zhang and CEO of Youku Tudou Victor Koo attending a press conference of the action against copyright violations in Beijing.

Two major Chinese video platforms attended a press conference of the action against copyright violations in Beijing on Nov. 13, 2013.

Photo: WANG ZHAO / Stringer via Getty Images

For 16 years, Liang Yongping led one of the biggest Chinese fan translation groups, one that has brought countless foreign movies to the Chinese internet. His methods were legally questionable, but for a long time, the government didn’t seem to mind. When Liang was interviewed by a state-run magazine in 2011, he was called “the preacher of knowledge in the internet era.

But on Nov. 22, Liang was handed a sentence of 3.5 years in prison and a fine of over $230,000. The reason, to no one’s surprise, was copyright infringement.

Volunteer subtitling and translation work, commonly referred to as “fan subbing” in English or “字幕组” in Chinese, was one of the unique cultural phenomena in China’s early internet years. Groups of devoted members would team up to download pirated content, translate the dialogues into Chinese and distribute the results on Chinese internet platforms. Because of the country’s tight grip on cultural imports, these pirated movies and shows became the way a generation of Chinese web users learned about the outside world.

Subbing is hard. It takes hours of intensive work and often becomes unsustainable because no one is getting paid. Renren Yingshi, a subbing group created in 2003 and once one of the biggest, went the furthest when it came to trying to monetize the popularity of fan subbing. Under Liang’s leadership, it tried to sell ads, create a paid streaming service and build apps for movie fans. It even received VC funding at various points. But any monetization attempt has ultimately been unsuccessful, if not illegal.

According to local court documents in Shanghai, by the time Liang and his colleagues were arrested this February, Renren Yingshi was hosting 32,864 available movies and shows and had accumulated 6.83 million members. In about three years, the website made nearly $2 million in revenue through selling ads, memberships that come with “donation requirements” and hard drives full of bootleg movies.

As China gradually joined the world in cracking down on copyright violations, fan subbing groups either dissolved, lowered their profile or faced legal consequences like Liang and his company.

But IP protections weren’t a clear win for the Western firms that had once clamored for them. As fan subbing groups waned, and Western shows became harder to access, so did the general audience’s appetite for them.

The rise of streaming platforms

In the early 2010s, burgeoning Chinese streaming platforms tried to appeal to fans of foreign shows. Sohu, a prominent player at the time, bought exclusive rights to hits like "The Big Bang Theory" or "House of Cards" and positioned itself as a legal way to consume American content. Other platforms did the same.

This was bad news for subbing groups. One of the reasons they hadn’t faced immediate legal repercussions was because Hollywood didn’t know how to navigate the Chinese justice system. But now, that can be done by the Chinese streaming platforms who have bought the broadcasting rights. Powerful platforms like Tencent Video have successfully sued several websites for hosting pirated content.

In the past decade, China has been frequently accused by international society of rampant copyright violation, and it has become an issue the Chinese government treats seriously. Chinese streaming platforms stand to benefit from an increasing emphasis on IP protection and that stance now defines China’s entertainment industry.

But fans aren’t so happy. Rooting out pirated shows doesn’t necessarily mean they will become available on legal platforms. There are only a small number of shows and movies bought by Chinese platforms in China, and even for those, they come out much later and are often heavily censored. Viewers reported that, for each episode of "Game of Thrones," Tencent would cut out five to 10 minutes of content related to nudity or violence. And the grand finale episode of the show was never broadcast, for “technical reasons” according to Tencent. Imagine the fans’ fury at that.

What remains

Frustrated by their experience on mainstream platforms, Chinese web users have ultimately returned to places like Renren. In many ways, Renren represents the old-fashioned way of accessing pirated shows: Everything is on one portal, easily navigable with search functions. But that convenience led to Renren’s demise.

“The fact that Chinese government has tightened up its control on unauthorized subtitling related websites has sent a clear message to the public about the potential risk of producing and disseminating unauthorized subtitling work,” Ting Guo and Jonathan Evans, a U.K.-based researcher duo who studies Chinese fan subbing groups, told Protocol.

The sentencing is another reminder that to stay in regulators’ good graces, these groups have to be content with doing unpaid work to avoid catching the government’s attention. While other cultural phenomena like anime and web novels are turning into business empires, fan subbing has to stay fan subbing.

In Renren’s wake, smaller subbing groups are still working. But to find their content, fans need to know the exact social media sub-forum, secret made-up file names or passwords that can only be accessed on a separate platform.

When accessing the content gets so complicated, it’s no surprise that the audience will lose interest. Domestic streaming platforms now provide Chinese users with tons of movies and shows. Even though the majority of them are subpar, they are enough to kill time. This also coincided with the rising cultural trend to embrace domestic content as a form of patriotism.

Perhaps Hollywood could never have predicted that, by protecting their content from illegal distribution, they ultimately lost a generation of Chinese viewers.

Climate

A pro-China disinformation campaign is targeting rare earth miners

It’s uncommon for cyber criminals to target private industry. But a new operation has cast doubt on miners looking to gain a foothold in the West in an apparent attempt to protect China’s upper hand in a market that has become increasingly vital.

It is very uncommon for coordinated disinformation operations to target private industry, rather than governments or civil society, a cybersecurity expert says.

Photo: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Just when we thought the renewable energy supply chains couldn’t get more fraught, a sophisticated disinformation campaign has taken to social media to further complicate things.

Known as Dragonbridge, the campaign has existed for at least three years, but in the last few months it has shifted its focus to target several mining companies “with negative messaging in response to potential or planned rare earths production activities.” It was initially uncovered by cybersecurity firm Mandiant and peddles narratives in the Chinese interest via its network of thousands of fake social media accounts.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Some of the most astounding tech-enabled advances of the next decade, from cutting-edge medical research to urban traffic control and factory floor optimization, will be enabled by a device often smaller than a thumbnail: the memory chip.

While vast amounts of data are created, stored and processed every moment — by some estimates, 2.5 quintillion bytes daily — the insights in that code are unlocked by the memory chips that hold it and transfer it. “Memory will propel the next 10 years into the most transformative years in human history,” said Sanjay Mehrotra, president and CEO of Micron Technology.

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Fintech

Ripple’s CEO threatens to leave the US if it loses SEC case

CEO Brad Garlinghouse said a few countries have reached out to Ripple about relocating.

"There's no doubt that if the SEC doesn't win their case against us that that is good for crypto in the United States,” Brad Garlinghouse told Protocol.

Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile for Collision via Getty Images

Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse said the crypto company will move to another country if it loses in its legal battle with the SEC.

Garlinghouse said he’s confident that Ripple will prevail against the federal regulator, which accused the company of failing to register roughly $1.4 billion in XRP tokens as securities.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Policy

The Supreme Court’s EPA ruling is bad news for tech regulation, too

The justices just gave themselves a lot of discretion to smack down agency rules.

The ruling could also endanger work on competition issues by the FTC and net neutrality by the FCC.

Photo: Geoff Livingston/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision last week gutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions didn’t just signal the conservative justices’ dislike of the Clean Air Act at a moment of climate crisis. It also served as a warning for anyone that would like to see more regulation of Big Tech.

At the heart of Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision in West Virginia v. EPA was a codification of the “major questions doctrine,” which, he wrote, requires “clear congressional authorization” when agencies want to regulate on areas of great “economic and political significance.”

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Enterprise

Microsoft and Google are still using emotion AI, but with limits

Microsoft said accessibility goals overrode problems with emotion recognition and Google offers off-the-shelf emotion recognition technology amid growing concern over the controversial AI.

Emotion recognition is a well-established field of computer vision research; however, AI-based technologies used in an attempt to assess people’s emotional states have moved beyond the research phase.

Photo: Microsoft

Microsoft said last month it would no longer provide general use of an AI-based cloud software feature used to infer people’s emotions. However, despite its own admission that emotion recognition technology creates “risks,” it turns out the company will retain its emotion recognition capability in an app used by people with vision loss.

In fact, amid growing concerns over development and use of controversial emotion recognition in everyday software, both Microsoft and Google continue to incorporate the AI-based features in their products.

“The Seeing AI person channel enables you to recognize people and to get a description of them, including an estimate of their age and also their emotion,” said Saqib Shaikh, a software engineering manager and project lead for Seeing AI at Microsoft who helped build the app, in a tutorial about the product in a 2017 Microsoft video.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins