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China's Supreme Court calls for stronger film copyright protection

Since China has published and enforced its Copyright Law, pirated films continue to appear widely on the internet inside the Great Firewall, despite repeated prohibitions. For many years, the determination of film-related copyright protection in China has been questioned.

Lin Guanghai, chief judge of the No 3 Civil Adjudication Tribunal, made comments at an intellectual property forum held concurrently to the China Golden Rooster Film Festival 2023, calling for stronger legal IP protection to protect the rights of the film industry, as well as more use of technology to support rightsholders. He noted that Chinese Courts are seeing a 7.4% annual growth in cases over the last 5 years relating to film copyright infringement.

A criminal case in the Yangzhou Intermediate People’s Court in 2020 helped rebuild confidence in Chinese film-related copyright protection. In 2023, the Supreme Court of China published this case as a ‘typical jurisdiction’ case, giving it more weight and expanding the judgment’s persuasive influence to the whole country.

This case revealed a common mechanism of film piracy for cinema releases. Four infringers first purchased facilities including servers and digital cinema projectors, and then rented an apartment as their studio. Subsequently, they colluded with a hacker to clone the server’s identity of the authorized cinema. Staff at the cinema replicated the film from master tape to the cloned server. After obtaining copies of films, they recorded and compressed the film and sold to down-stream infringers.

From 2017 to 2019, many popular films have been pirated including Wandering Earth, Crazy Alien, The New King of Comedy. Four infringers illegally earned nearly 7 million RMB (around US$ 1 million) by pirating 431 films. They were sentenced, with punishments ranging from four to six years in prison.

After this case was widely reported on news websites, this case has caused a significant renewed deterrence to film pirates, showing that China is making efforts in clearing the pirate film market. In 2021, China Film Administration explicitly stated the importance of protecting film’s copyright in order to create a healthy development environment for the film industry.

Now is good timing for film copyright rightsholders who have not been proactively enforcing their film copyright in China to reconsider their approach.

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