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When Fans Clash with Copyright Law

Copyright was initially ignored by film and television producers, who would look the other way because volunteer translations helped cultivate a Chinese market for their content

By Zhang Qingchen Updated Feb.9

Last month Japanese authorities arrested five Chinese exchange students they alleged had subtitled Japanese television programs in a violation of copyright law. Online discussions of the arrests focused on whether the practice of "fan-subbing" – where fans take it upon themselves to write unofficial, unlicensed subtitles for a foreign language film – should be considered a copyright violation. 

So-called "fansub groups," which are typically run by individuals with strong foreign language skills that enable them to interpret slang and humor, provide subtitles of hit and cult foreign TV shows and movies. Such groups are said to be responsible for the spread of foreign television shows and films in China, and they also help people who have poor foreign language skills access foreign content.   

In a comment piece for View.news.qq.com, author Wei Wei argues copyright was initially ignored by film and television producers when fansub groups were still at a developing stage. Some would look the other way because volunteer translations helped cultivate a Chinese market for their content, he suggests. But nowadays many such groups are being shut down, with their services being blocked by China's National Copyright Administration.  

Fansub group members have been aggrieved by the turn of events saying they do not profit financially from their hobby translations and are just happy to allow more people to view foreign films and shows. One source of controversy, Wei Wei explains, is a pseudo-legal "disclaimer" often used by fansub groups saying their translations are not official, are for personal enjoyment and learning, and that content should be erased within a day of being downloaded. 

The pseudo-legal language doesn't square with Chinese copyright law, which views subtitles as an integral part of the work, Wei Wei says. "Translation of subtitles without permission from the copyright holder clearly constitutes a violation of subtitle translation rights," he adds. Add the fact groups typically disseminating the works for free on their websites, and there is little doubt they are violating copyright.

Wei Wei says the best option is to regulate video websites and ask them to purchase the rights to shows legally. These sites could also collect and organize fansub groups to translate foreign works, the author suggests.