Chinese court jails Renren Yingshi video site founder in crackdown on film and TV piracy


By Guo Rui

Liang Yongping given 3½ years in prison over piracy of 30,000 TV shows and films, with 14 other people yet to be sentenced. Public demand for the likes of ‘House Of Cards’ and ‘Squid Game’ fuelled partly by China’s restrictions on foreign content. — SCMP

The founder of video download and streaming website Renren Yingshi was on Nov 22 sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison and fined 1.5mil yuan (RM986,081) for pirating more than 30,000 Chinese and foreign television programmes and films.

Liang Yongping’s sentence was announced by a Shanghai court via social media. One of China’s biggest and longest-running subtitling sites and sources of pirated foreign content, Renren Yingshi – founded in 2003 – has been closed since February as part of a sweeping crackdown on piracy by Shanghai police.

The site, also known as YYeTs.com, said on Weibo: “It is impossible to restore Renren Yingshi – we can’t fix the copyright problem.” Requests for comments were not answered.

A further 14 people who were arrested in connection with the matter will be sentenced separately, the Shanghai court said.

Its announcement said Renren Yingshi had more than 6.8 million registered users and offered almost 33,000 pirated TV shows and films, and had made over 12mil yuan (RM7.88mil) in profit from advertisements, subscriptions and hard copies of content since early 2018.

As one of the world’s fastest-growing film markets and a top destination for Western films, China has hundreds of subtitling sites and social media accounts similar to Renren Yingshi.

Piracy has been rampant in China partly because of strict import quotas imposed by the authorities, limiting how many foreign films and TV shows – which have a huge following among young Chinese – can be shown legally each year.

This restricts access to shows such as House Of Cards, Game Of Thrones, The Good Wife and Squid Game, some of which are shown by streaming platforms including Tencent and iQiyi – often months later than in other countries.

In addition, China has no film rating system, with state censors exercising strict control over content by cutting scenes they deem politically sensitive, violent or vulgar.

For a long time, subtitling sites filled the gap, offering the public uncensored access to what was not available through official channels, from comedy to political satire.

But they needed to strike a balance between expansion and overexposure that raised the risk of being shut down. Foreign film studios and programme makers are well aware of their existence but have relied largely on the Chinese government to target serious offenders.

Huang Simin, a lawyer in the central city of Wuhan who has handled intellectual property (IP) cases, said Renren Yingshi’s fate would serve as a warning to other websites.

“It has no doubt infringed owners’ copyright under criminal law, so this verdict will certainly have a deterrent effect,” Huang said. “At the same time, the authorities are using the laws to prevent distribution of uncensored foreign films and TV programmes.

Shenzhen teacher Chen Ling said she was disappointed when she learned of Renren Yingshi’s demise.

“I’m so sad – it means there is one platform fewer that we can go to for broadening our horizons,” the 28-year-old said. “I worry that other similar sources will be shut down one after another.”

Foreign TV dramas had become part of her life, and she felt her options for accessing it were limited. “I would like to pay for legal content, but where can I go?” she said. “Netflix is not available here, and I’m a Tencent Video member but can’t see the American dramas I love.”

Jin Haijun, an IP law professor at Renmin University, said the verdict was in line with the government’s pledge to strengthen IP protection, but there would still be demand for the content among the Chinese public.

“The issue is not revenue from sales of advertisement by these websites,” Jin said. “They violate the copyright even if the download and streaming is free.

“Provision of subtitles [by these websites] means these programmes become more accessible and hence more influential, making the infringement a more serious matter.

“[The authorities] could consider setting up a rating system so more foreign programmes can be introduced legally, helping to improve our domestic entertainment market, instead of making it impossible to watch programmes. The demand for it cannot be eliminated.” – South China Morning Post

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