A fair amount of fuss was made regarding Music Copyright Society of China's (MCSC) announcement that it had reached an licensing agreement with Baidu, China's top online infringer of copyrights. MCSC even announced that they had received their first royalty payment from China's largest search engine (Yes, Baidu is like merging Google with the old Napster). Finally, a major breakthrough that should please everyone, especially Chinese songwriters, right?
Not quite. On the same day MCSC made their announcement, famous chinese songwriter and producer Xiaosong Gao posted an open letter on his sina blog titled "A letter to my colleagues of the Chinese Songwriters Copyright Alliance." He was joined by several songwriters such as Xiao Ke and Yadong Zhang in launching the Chinese Songwriters Copyright Alliance (CSCA) a couple of days earlier to fight the egregious copyright infringement by Baidu and negotiate on behalf of songwriters not represented by MCSC. Within days, CSCA soon attracted hundreds of new members.
Xiaosong Gao established MaiTian Music, which used to be China's largest record label, and now lives in the Los Angeles where he works in film and music sector. He also served as Director of Entertainment for SOHU.com, one of the most popular portals in China. So Gao certainly has a stake in what happens in China on the copyright front, the credibility to speak out and understanding of China's online market.
Gao notes in his open letter that CSCA's first step will be negotiating a comprehensive agreement with Baidu and assuring enforcement. "It should be complete legalization rather than meaninglessly building up a legal music platform while the large amount of pirated links remain available on Baidu's MP3 channel. Baidu MP3 channel is where pirate music sites get their site traffic by simply paying for Baidu advertising, then resell that traffic to pornographic sites or other counterfeit goods services. It gives me such pain knowing this dirty food chain is actually fed with the most beautiful music!"
While I was not aware of the link between pirate music sites and porn, Baidu's MP3 search page is perhaps the most flagrant form of open piracy I've ever seen. And this from Google's equivalent in China - in other words, not just some website, but THE website that all Chinese surfers use. I was outraged to see that MP3 search page still online today, even after the MCSC agreement and launch of Baidu's 'legal' music service Ting. What's the use of a legal music service if the pirate service is just a click away on the same site!
Gao has acknowledged the first steps forward made by MCSC and Baidu in creating a legal environment for music. But, he has also noted that MCSC only represents a small amount of songwriters. Nor is the Baidu-MCSC agreement nearly comprehensive enough as it only deals with royalties owed moving forward, not addressing royalties or compensation for past activities on the site. To make matters worse, not only are most Chinese songwriters not member of MCSC, but those that are have been given no information as to the terms of the Baidu-MCSC agreement.
This later point is significant. If there is one thing truly lacking in China's music industry, it is transparency. Artists and labels continually complain that they often have no idea whether the numbers they are given by mobile carriers are true, that is when they get reporting. This is not insignificant as there has been a rash of arrests at China Mobile for fraud and embezzlement, particularly in the music department. Considering Baidu's long history of flouting copyright, songwriters are right to be suspicious of any backroom deal struck.
But the issue of transparency goes beyond just Baidu. Yan Xiaohong, deputy director of the National Copyright Administration, noted at a meeting of the Chinese Movie Copyright Association that "the distribution of royalties by collective management organizations should be fair and transparent," to the point where the organization should be accountable to each individual member.
The fact is that if there were trust in institutions such as MCSC, songwriters wouldn't feel the need to form another organization to represent their rights. They would just rush to sign with MCSC and collect their check, right? But might they actually be implicitly signing a poison deal with Baidu by joining MCSC?
Gao goes on to express his anger that songwriters are the most vulnerable, neglected and silent group in the music industry while suffering the most by piracy. "No one ever paid any attention to protect our rights as 99% of our income was stolen. Facing the situation in Mainland China where the market is dominated by 98% of pirated CDs, musicians are struggling to survive on the remaining 2% that is the legitimate market."
End of story? Not quite. An April 19th article in people.com.cn reported that CSCA co-founder Xiao Ke was complaining that Baidu was ignoring CSCA, not having responded to their April 6th open letter to Baidu outlining four basic principles (takedown, apologize, compensate and common development) to advancing negotiation. Yet, Xiaosong Gao was interviewed the next day in the same outlet praising Baidu "for the large degree of improvement" it had done in recognizing the piracy issue and compensating songwriters. The title of the interview? "Xiaosong Gao's music "crusade" against Baidu harvest results: receives upfront royalty". And so, the soap opera that is China's music industry goes on.
By Eric de Fontenay
this article was co-written with Xingyue Peng