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2018-05-25 13:03:51

Chinese tech giant Tencent said that it may reconsider its recent investment in a media outlet that has repeatedly been accused of plagiarism.

“If it’s not consistent with Tencent’s principles for protecting intellectual property, we will negotiate to withdraw our shares,” the company wrote in a Thursday statement.

On Wednesday, new media outlet Chaping — literally “Bad Review” — announced that it had received 30 million yuan ($4.7 million) from investors, which included Tencent’s fund for online content creators, launched last November. The deal, however, has attracted plenty of online criticism, with many giving it a “bad review” because of Chaping’s questionable reputation.

Chaping is a Hangzhou-based new media outlet focused on tech. Founded in 2015, it publishes through social platforms like WeChat, Weibo, and content aggregator Jinri Toutiao. According to data provider New Rank, Chaping is the top-ranked WeChat public account for tech news, with more than 13 million views in April and over a million active followers. But the outlet has been plagued with plagiarism allegations — though none have held up in court. A Chaping employee told Sixth Tone he could not comment on Tencent’s statement.

In May 2016, well-known tech writer Huo Ju sued Chaping’s parent company, Hangzhou Magua Network Tech, for plagiarism, citing 19 similarities between Chaping’s content and his — including terms he had coined specifically to avoid copycats. But the court found Chaping not guilty.

As social media publishing — called “WeMedia” in China — grows ever more prolific and profitable, plagiarists have also become more cunning and circumspect, giving birth to the term “article laundering” — a neologism that refers to rewriting articles just enough to avoid detection.

“Original work requires a lot of time conducting research, but article laundering ignores this process and only changes linguistic expression,” Fang Kecheng, a Ph.D. candidate in media studies at the University of Pennsylvania, told Sixth Tone. He described Tencent’s investment in Chaping as “very irresponsible.”

Another Chinese tech news outlet, PingWest, published an article in May 2017 that named and shamed accounts, including Chaping, for plagiarism and article laundering. The article gives examples of how Chaping had copied full paragraphs from a PingWest story.

PingWest’s content director, Du Chen, was disappointed to hear of Tencent’s decision. “On the finance side, I think this is a sound investment,” he told Sixth Tone. “But coming from someone whose work was once copied by Chaping, and someone who publishes on Tencent’s platform, I think Tencent’s support of Chaping … is unfair to me, and makes [Tencent] look bad.”

Du said that parts of a Chaping article had used the same wording as an article he had written about an Amazon employee’s attempted suicide — but despite his anger, he let it go. “We are not a large corporation, so we don’t have a fully operational legal team,” he said. “We didn’t even send a lawyer’s letter.”

However, Du believes that up until this point, at least, Tencent has done a decent job in terms of protecting writers on WeChat. Public account users must check a copyright statement before publishing a post, for example, and the platform automatically flags content that is an exact copy of an existing post. “However, when it comes to other [accounts] using sophisticated and innovative ways to copy your work, Tencent can’t do much about it, as there is no standardized way to confirm an infringement,” he said.

Chaping, for its part, has plenty of defenders. Huang Di, a Shanghai-based copywriter, told Sixth Tone that she finds the outlet’s content thoughtful, well-written, and skillfully edited. As someone who considers herself technologically illiterate, she appreciates the outlet’s up-to-the-minute feeds. “Chaping sparks my desire to catch up with the latest trends,” she said.

Although Huang admitted she had heard about the plagiarism accusations against Chaping, she said she believed them to be born out of jealousy. “Original content is just about aggregating sources and delivering them in your own words,” she said.

Li Tianyu, a loyal Chaping reader with a master’s degree in journalism, told Sixth Tone that he believes readers are being held hostage by Chaping’s critics, and are not considering the issue rationally.

“I don’t think readers should be ‘morally kidnapped’ by article-laundering cases, which should be governed by law, standardized through regulation, and defined by intellectual property rights,” Li said.

Editor: Qian Jinghua.

(Header image: Tencent’s company logo is displayed at a press conference in Hong Kong, March 17, 2016. Bobby Yip/VCG)