Chinese Court: Apple at Fault for 3rd Party Copyright Violations

Apple China Copyright Lawsuit

A Chinese court ruled Tuesday that Apple must pay 730,000 yuan (approximately US$118,000) to three writers for allowing unlicensed copies of their works to be sold on the App Store. While the monetary impact of the decision will barely be felt in Cupertino, the ruling may set a precedent in China that that could force digital distributors of content to alter their policies.

The books at issue were reportedly uploaded to the iOS App Store as standalone apps by third parties who were not authorized to reproduce their copyrighted contents. Apple approved the app submissions and offered the books for sale until the Writers’ Right Protection Union, a Chinese group that claims to safeguard authors’ copyrights online, took notice and sued the company.

U.S. laws generally protect websites and digital content stores from intellectual property infringement committed by third parties as long those websites and stores take action to remove the offending content once it is discovered. According to the presiding judge in the Chinese lawsuit, however, China law requires more.

Judge Feng Gang stated in his ruling that Apple must take the steps to ensure that those uploading copyrighted works to its online store are in fact authorized and licensed to do so. “The writers involved…include Mai Jia, whose books are often on the best-seller lists across the country,” the judge explained. “In this way, Apple has the capability to know the uploaded books on its online store violated the writer’s copyright.”

A requirement for Apple to manually check each upload for proper licensing is not practical and would bring an already overworked app submission process to a halt. Xie Wen, former president of Yahoo! China, agreed:

What they (companies) can do is make it stricter for publishers, but this may affect their online platforms’ popularity and result in economic losses. The verification must rely on human power, but some small companies won’t spend money and time to employ people to do such work. So such disputes will be hard to avoid in the future.

Apple did not officially comment on the ruling, although the attorney for the writers told local newspapers that he was satisfied with the results. This is the second lawsuit Apple has faced in China from the Writers’ Protection Union. The first was filed in January 2012 on behalf of nine writers and ended with a $160,000 verdict against the company.

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