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    Man Sues Filmmaker Who Adapted His Forum Story Without Consent

    A Beijing court called the similarities between a short film and a netizen’s earlier forum post ‘an infringement of authors’ rights.’

    A Beijing court has ruled in favor of a man who sued after his personal story — a budding romance recorded in a 2016 forum post — was adapted into a short film without his permission.

    According an announcement Wednesday, the Haidian District People’s Court ordered New Studios Media Co. Ltd. and the filmmaker, surnamed Wang, to pay the plaintiff, surnamed Xin, a total of 63,709 yuan ($9,300) in damages for infringing Xin’s author’s rights.

    In 2018, Xin filed a lawsuit accusing the film — which had been uploaded to microblogging site Weibo, as well as several video-streaming platforms — of copying the plot of a story he had written and posted on the Quora-like forum site Zhihu.

    “The court has found substantial similarities between the story and the short video,” the announcement read. “Considering the possibility that the defendants could have had access to the story, and that the defendants could not prove the video’s originality, the video constitutes an infringement of authors’ rights.”

    Xu Xinming, an intellectual property lawyer at Beijing Mingtai Law Firm, told Sixth Tone on Friday that no matter how short a story is, it falls under copyright law if its originality can be proven and if it appears in copiable form. “Authors’ rights take effect immediately upon completion of the work,” Xu said. “And since the story was posted publicly on an online platform, it can be assumed that the defendants were capable of accessing the story — unless they can provide evidence to the contrary.”

    In November 2016, Xin wrote a Zhihu post about a girl he had a crush on at school — a story that, in real life, had already blossomed into a relationship. The following year, Xin saw the short video on Weibo and noticed that the characters, setting, dialogue, and plot were all uncannily similar to his own story. He filed a lawsuit against the film studio and Wang, requesting the video’s removal from the internet and total compensation of 513,709 yuan.

    Xin told Sixth Tone on Friday that the decision to sue and defend his rights came naturally and that he’s happy with the result. “It’s awesome, the infringer paid the price and I received the compensation I deserved,” he said, adding that he also walked away from the experience with a more favorable impression of intellectual property protections.

    “I was prepared for failure in the beginning because the current copyright situation is so chaotic — it’s really common to see people who write for a living have their works copied or distributed without authorization,” Xin said. “But I won the case. That means copyrights can still be effectively protected.”

    In an interview Thursday with the newspaper Beijing Business Today, a spokesperson for Zhihu said the company had set up a special copyright column dedicated to responding to users’ inquiries, raising awareness of intellectual property, and helping users deal with cases of infringement. The platform said that in May, it had received and followed up on 14 allegations of copyright infringement.

    The lawyer, Xu, told Sixth Tone that the current law follows a “filling principle,” meaning the copyright owner should receive compensation proportionate to their economic losses. “However, often this isn’t sufficient justice, as it’s difficult for the copyright owner to prove such losses and also difficult to prove how much the infringer has profited.”

    Xu said China’s copyright law is being amended to increase the amount of compensation that can be claimed in such cases and to apply additional punitive damages in the event of malicious infringement.

    “In doing this, copyright infringement cases should become a warning to deter would-be infringers,” the lawyer said.

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: A man holds a smartphone displaying an ad for the Chinese Q&A platform Zhihu in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 15, 2018. IC)