Breaking down discourse on media copyright debate

By PENG GUIBING / 06-20-2019 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Article laundering is all about infringing on the interests of others in pursuit of one’s own and the public interest should not be an excuse to plagiarize. Photo: SOUTHERN PEOPLE WEEKLY


Early this year, Wang Heyan, a senior reporter at financial news outlet Caixin, posted to her social feed on messaging app WeChat accusing Huang Zhijie, the owner of a WeChat public account covering politics and current affairs, of stealing her content. Huang’s article, published on WeChat with a note identifying it as “original content,” has already been widely shared, eclipsing 100,000 views, which is the maximum number the app displays, and 45,000 likes.

Huang’s article cited a previous report by Wang published in July 2018 and included a photo of Wang as attribution—though Huang has the byline. The WeMedia article also cites major state media outlets, including Xinhua News Agency, People’s Daily, and China Youth Daily as sources for its content.

After Wang aired her grievances on WeChat, Huang posted another article the same day titled “Society Is Collapsing,” in which he defended his work as “exclusive, original, and even with personal emotions,” which he says were absent from the Caixin report. Huang further argued that all of the content in his article had come from “reliable and officially recognized sources” and that parts of it had been based on his own experience of visiting Gansu Province. The incident has sparked heated discussion about intellectual property in the media.

In fact, digital media poses a great challenge to the traditional copyright system, as this incident reveals. In this article, we try to apply discourse analysis to delve into the copyright issue.


Plagiarism in the law
The central controversy is copyright. In other words, whether there is “article laundering” in Huang’s content. Article laundering refers to the dismantling and scrambling of other people’s original works and the interspersing of quotations without marking sources. Unless the author gains the copyright owner’s permission, or the work falls under the purview of reasonable use, article laundering is a kind of infringement on the original author’s legal right.

However, copyright law does not clarify what kind of rights are violated in the act of article laundering, be it the right to modify or the right to disseminate information online. Therefore, taking advantage of the ambiguity in the copyright law, some people directly avoid the copyright issue and arm themselves with the “inviolability of personal rights” to defend Huang’s article. Others voice their support or opposition toward Huang, but fail to present sound arguments, forming a polarized gap.

Some lawyers and scholars have entered the discussion and said that Huang may have violated China’s copyright law, which applies to and protects in-depth reporting. Meanwhile, the fact that WeChat account writers gather over 100,000 views per article and are able to ask for monetary rewards from readers is also a kind of business model, so Huang’s “gain without pain” may violate the anti-unfair competition law, which requires entrepreneurs to obey commonly recognized businesses ethics. In spite of this, a majority of participants in the discussion lack the professional knowledge to state clearly the legal implications behind it, making the discussion less constructive.


Profit model
We can also see Wang’s accusation over Huang’s infringement from a legal and property perspective. She wrote “without any cost” and “pay to read,” signifying the property discourse. Her phrases “citing the original author,” “unlimited plagiarism” and “disclaimer” signify the legal discourse. In the heated debate, more attention was paid to the latter.

In fact, a few scholars and media practitioners have begun joining the debate from the perspective of WeMedia traffic and the paywall business model of Caixin. In the context of the overall decline of traditional media and the rise of new media, the nature of news reports as property has been increasingly highlighted. The international community is now trying to figure out how to make news media organizations obtain as much due benefit as possible, on the basis of meeting existing expenditures.

Many traditional media organizations in the US have adopted technical means, such as paywalls. The EU and its member states have tried to remedy the plight of traditional media organizations by modifying copyright laws, creating adjacent rights like “publisher’s rights” and adopting anti-unfair competition laws.

Within the controversy, some people support Huang’s practice, believing that traditional institutional media like Caixin cannot develop independently from the traffic generated by WeMedia. They argue that Huang can bring traffic to Caixin through imbedding links and standard citations, so as to realize the mutual benefit and win-win situation between traditional media and WeMedia.

Some people then went on to criticize Caixin’s paywall business model. They held that news has value because of its timeliness. Once the time has passed, the value of news is greatly reduced. It is unnecessary to protect news that has become history with a paywall. In rebuttal to these comments, some support Caixin’s paywall model, arguing that Caixin just needs to optimize its profit model, not cancel it.


Public vs. commercial value
As American media scholar Michael Schudson puts it in his book The Power of News, the news media has emerged as a central institution of modern society and a key repository of common knowledge and cultural authority. While affirming the public value of news, he does not disparage or deny the commercial value of news.

After the dawn of the era of mass media, there was a period of time when the United States tried to reconcile the conflict between the public and commercial value of news through news copyright legislation, but this ended in failure. In the age of digital media, the tension between these two value systems has become escalated. In the recent controversy, the conflict between these two value systems is once more brought into the spotlight.

Ling Huawei, chief editor of Caixin, and Wang questioned the purpose of Huang’s article, mainly to maintain the commercial value of media organizations. Huang’s statement emphasizes the public value of news. He said, “It’s wrong for one individual to hold a monopoly on a story when they have only reported some of the facts.” In my opinion, it is neither proper to push down the commercial value of news with the public value of news nor vice versa.

Chinese media scholar Zhang Zhi’an shared his views through another WeChat Moments post: Judging from the positioning of Huang’s account and the value of Huang’s previous articles, the post fulfills a certain public communication function. However, Caixin runs on a paywall business model and this article is paywalled and protected, so theoretically, it should not be reposted and cited without permission. The public interest should not be an excuse to plagiarize. After all, article laundering is all about infringing on the interests of others in pursuit of one’s own. His final conclusion is that serious media producers adhere to copyright themselves and deserve respect.

When quoting the facts and opinions reported by professional media, WeMedia should not only indicate the source but also respect the source author’s requirements. This kind of solution attempts to reconcile the contradiction between the public value of news and the commercial value.

Du Junfei, a media scholar, believes that news should be a public product, journalists should have a social conscience, and news media should be a public tool. What he emphasizes here is the public value of news. He does not deny that there are problems in the writing of Huang’s account, but he suggests that traditional media organizations make peace with WeMedia and jointly face up to the public value of news.

To sum up, there are two points that need to be stressed: First, the modes of copyright discourse discussed above are not independent of each other, but often blend together. For example, judging whether there is article laundering in the legal sense will definitely involve whether copyright law can protect the property of traditional media organizations, and there will be property discourse throughout this. In addition, property discourse will definitely involve the commercial attributes of media organizations, and value discourse will integrate the commercial value of news. In short, the issue of intellectual property must be closely monitored as China’s media landscape continues to shift from traditional outlets to WeMedia accounts.


Peng Guibing is from the School of Communication at East China University of Political Science and Law.

edited by YANG XUE