China Central Television (CCTV) has been slammed for plagiarism of a freelance photographer's work and for its arrogant response to criticism. This isn't the first time that the state-run CCTV has plagiarized ideas or others’ work in its programs. Instead of looking into the allegations, CCTV has told the police to investigate the photographer for scams, and domestic reports on the plagiarism dispute have been censored and taken offline.
On September 10, Wang Yuanzong, a freelance photographer in Wuhan, Hubei province, claimed on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) that his time-lapse photography work had been plagiarized by CCTV’s program The Beautiful Villages in China, “without his authorization.”
Wang quickly reached out to CCTV, but was frustrated with their response. Someone who claimed to be a “CCTV intern” beat about the bush on the phone, avoiding a direct response to his demand to reach the person in charge of the program. The “intern” even rebutted with “So what if CCTV uses your work [without your authorization], do you think that's wrong?”
Wang recorded the phone conversation and embedded it in a blog post, explaining to the readers that the CCTV program plagiarized his time-lapse photography work, Starry Tibet, which was filmed in four different locations in Tibet in 2013. The challenging photos, which took him many days to shoot, were taken in adverse weather conditions and at an altitude of 5,000 meters.
According to Wang's own description:
What I want to say is that my work cost me a lot of effort. My health was damaged during the year in Tibet. And now, China’s official CCTV has given me such a response, which makes me extremely sad.
After Wang’s phone negotiations, CCTV changed its contact details from a phone number to an e-mail address on the program's official website.
Instead of justice, intimidation
Later on the same day, Wang said on his Weibo that he was being intimidated by CCTV staff, who claimed they would go to the Hubei police and ask them to investigate him for a suspected “scam.” His demand for compensation of 250,000 yuan was also rejected.
Update on the development. This morning, I talked to the program staff and demanded RMB25,000 yuan (approximately US$3920 dollars) as a copyright fee. But they were not willing to do so and persuaded me not to publicize the dispute or else I could no longer work with CCTV in the future. They refused to settle and told me that Hubei police would investigate me for scamming…
As a search on Google news shows, some domestic media have reported on Wang’s troubles and unjust treatment, but all the reports seem to have been deleted without any explanations, returning “404 not found” on previously existing webpages.
The CCTV program’s official Weibo account later published a clarification, in which they admitted that the time-lapse photography they used in the show had actually been bought on Taobao, the world’s largest online shopping website. The statement referred Wang, but did not mention how much compensation they would like to pay for him.
Lack of copyright awareness
One Weibo user provided a constructive opinion that called for CCTV to cooperate with Taobao to improve the copyright situation in China:
If it [time-lapse photography work] was indeed bought on Taobao, should [CCTV] cooperate with Taobao to locate the person who sells these works, and to confirm if Wang Zongyuan had authorized this seller? If not, should [CCTV] take a thorough inspection, give a complete reply to [the photographer], and improve the copyright environment? As the number one in the industry, [CCTV] should set an example.
Despite an absence of further responses from CCTV, Wang still holds a principled stance on protecting his copyright. The day after the incident, he claimed that his copyright had been violated four times within the last month. Violators included Youku [one of the China’s largest online video websites], Liaoning and Hunan television stations, and a wedding photography company, who had all used his photography work without his permission. Wang said he plans to file lawsuits against these four organisations for violating copyright.
From academic to educational and to art circles in China, plagiarism has become a prevalent phenomenon and has been eroding the original creators’ enthusiasm. This creates additional woes for China as a country that is struggling to transform itself from a copycat state into a creative one.
Although China National People’s Congress passed the copyright law back in 1990, safeguarding their copyright is usually quite costly for an individual. Plagiarism victims usually get minute compensation, while most of them cannot afford the expensive lawsuit fees. Wang’s story is evidence that the individual, whose copyright has been violated by the authorities, is more often than not at a disadvantage.
In his post, Wang calls for CCTV to raise its copyright awareness and accept the burden of responsibility for using other people's content:
As the largest and most authoritative television station, if [CCTV] does not respect copyright awareness and original creators, how could it make our conscientious photographers see hope? The number of content producers may diminish significantly because everyone feels completely disappointed.