Visual China Group announces “voluntary closure” after black hole picture copyright row

Lack of clear rules and conventions for image use spell trouble for China’s cyberspace

credit: the European Southern Observatory

Chinese stock image site Visual China Group (VCG) announced a “voluntary closure” and apologized for its weak management after the website was criticized for its fast-and-loose copyright practices.

Criticism of VCG peaked yesterday after it attempted selling images of a black hole published by the European Southern Observatory through its website. The images — humanity’s first-ever photos of a black hole — had been published by the ESO for free public use.

That’s not the only thing VCG was in trouble for. Its closure, albeit perhaps only temporary, might have more to with another recent incident.

On its Weibo channel, The Central Committee of the Communist Young League accused VCG of misconduct for selling images of China’s national flag and national emblem. Chinese laws specifically forbid any commercial use of such pictures. The company was later summoned by the local internet regulator in Tianjin to discuss a thorough overhaul of its business model.

“At the moment, the company has taken measures to deal with the non-compliant pictures and voluntarily closed the website to make changes in accordance with relevant laws and regulations,” VCG said in a statement today.

VCG said the pictures of China’s national flag and national emblem on its website were uploaded by contractors, not employees, and that the company was “deeply regretful” of the loophole in its content management. However, as an image hosting platform, the company is legally responsible to check uploaded images for such infringements, Beijing-based lawyer Zhang Xinnian told KrAsia.

While claiming copyright over and asking money for images it doesn’t own, VCG also stands accused for being overly aggressive towards other people’s copyright infringements.

In the midst of the black hole and national flag kerfuffle, a social media post posted last year went viral, in which famous investor Zhang Wei called VCG’s core business model “extortion”. Many bloggers, reporters, and designers came forward to recount their experiences of being “extorted” by VCG for misusing their pictures. Apparently, if you do use a photo from VCG without paying, the firm will haunt you to demand exorbitant subscription fees.

“Almost every self-publisher and every website with some level of influence has had the experience of this kind of extortion that comes under the disguise of safeguarding copyright,” said Fan Xingdong, the director of the Research Center for Internet and Society at the Communication University of Zhejiang.

A list of legal records seen by KrASIA shows that the company and its subsidiaries have been involved in more than 12,000 lawsuits in the past decade.

The public outrage against VCG points to a bigger problem in China’s cyberspace – its open nature has to a degree been spoiled by some profit-driven companies, according to Fang, and there’s a lack of clear rules and fair use conventions for images on the internet.

Editor: Nadine Freischlad