[This post is written by our guest editor: Michelle Chen, from School of Electronics Engineering and Computer Science, Peking University]

A few weeks ago, Chinese race car driver, novelist, blogger, and future New York Times columnist Han Han wrote a letter to Baidu founder Robin Li – and caused quite the commotion. The letter essentially lashed out at Baidu’s business model – the locating and sharing of free digital information at the expense of creative artists.

“Baidu is eviler than Google”, a netizen commented on FTChinese.com. Why do they think that?

The New Sin: Baidu Wenku

Baidu has been suffering the complaint and anger for a long while because of its paid ranking system, filtered content and pirate downloads etc. The new sin got Baidu on fire is Baidu Wenku. Baidu Wenku is a free literary sharing platform, which is a student’s heaven but a writer’s worst nightmare. Users upload files and give ratings to earn stars, which are then used to download desired files. However, many of these files are uploaded without consent, and include copyrighted materials from all over the world, including the US and Europe.

Mid-March, 50 authors were summoned on Sina Microblog, including Shen Haobo, Zhang Hongbo, and Han Han. The authors, teaming up with Chinese Written Works Copyright Society and Mo Tie Book Company, sued Baidu on grounds of violation of copyrights. Since, a number of other companies including Qidian Online, Shengda Online, and even Japanese publishers, have begun to sue Baidu.

Even Guoqing Li, CEO of Dangdang.com, China’s largest online book retailer, posted on his microblog that he would “financially support Baidu suers”, “save tens of millions RMB by terminating its Baidu advertising to improve Dangdang.com services”, and welcomed everyone to “log onto Dangdang.com directly to search for any products you want to buy.”

“For a 25.0 yuan book, the average author makes about 2 yuan. Deduct 30 cents taxes, and you’re left with 1.70 yuan for each book sold,” says Han. At this rate, even a bestselling author will have to work for 100 years to afford a decent 2-room apartment in the suburbs of a large Chinese city.

Baidu admitted this time. After the copyright protection issue was brought to light:

March 19 Post-uproar % Change
Literary works 2.8 million 170 99.99%
Short novels 132 3 97.73%
Total works 200+ million 170+ million 15.0%

*source: http://tech.qq.com/a/20110331/000113.htm

However, so far Baidu has won most of both its anti-trust and copyright violation cases, that Han Han sarcastically mused “Perhaps Robin Li’s father is Li Gang?” This refers to the words used by the son of a high-ranking police chief who tried to evade responsibility for hitting and killing a student in a car accident by using his father’s name. Ever since, “My father is Li Gang” gained notoriety for those who thought they would always be protected by impunity.

Legally Acceptable?

“Mimicking and replicating – in China, they are all the utmost forms of flattery. When an artist puts Li Bai [famous poet] in their artwork even without consent, or copies your essay word for word, it’s considered a compliment, not an offense,” a renowned Political Economics professor at Peking University once said.

However, the fight against piracy must come at a time that is right for China. As one netizen commented on FTChinese.com, “to be honest, I am ashamed to be a user of pirated material. However, when I found that I couldn’t find jailbroken software, free texts, or China-adapted games, I thought, those people who are fighting against piracy don’t really know what they are doing. So I spoke out less. I am for piracy…perhaps when the Chinese become wealthier and are able to purchase certified products, then we can fight against piracy.”

Rumors are this week that there will be a huge government crackdown on unregistered DVD shops and street-side vendors in Beijing. This could be partly in response to Han’s widely talked about blog post, or fulfillment of a promise 10 years after accession to the WTO.

[image courtesy of Tencent Tech]