Are they spreading culture or infringing copyrights?

By Harry Yang, China IP,[Internet & Domain]

    When Americans were enjoying the hot show Prison Break, Chinese can almost simultaneously enjoy it as well. With BitTorrent (BT) downloading, Chinese fans are able to watch videos of Prison Break a little more than 10 hours after American viewers. With reports from the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, the subtitle teams who translate Prison Break into Chinese have come to the surface. Without any payment, the members work diligently and quietly; translating the program; making it into video files with Chinese subtitles and placing it on the web for anybody to download it with BT. They are heroes in the eyes of the Chinese viewers. Some reputable subtitle teams, like TLF SUBS, YDY, have become well-known brands among netizens. The New York Times considered that these Chinese teams “buffs slake thirst for U.S. TV shows”.
     From the numerous comments of Chinese fans at, one of the top 10 global websites, one can understand how hot Prison Break is in China. The message board was created in April 2006 and nearly 500,000 messages and 30,000 topics have been posted up to now. In addition, the fervent fans have created a Chinese official website for Prison Break ( and more than 10 other similar ones, by imitating the English official website. Although Prison Break received a hot reception on the internet in China, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has no formal plans to import the program. In fact, without the efforts of the Chinese subtitle teams, Chinese audience would not have been able to enjoy Prison Break.
    On the net, which is a very powerful disseminating tool, the teams, or “unknown heroes” love to disseminate American pop culture. They provide a free platform for those who want to learn about western culture from American TV plays and movies. From Prison Break, the fans learn about pop art, judicial procedures, names and locations of states, and others about the United States.
   When we place our attention on the social function of the translation teams, it seems that we have overlooked the legal issues involved: the teams have translated and disseminated the program without permission from the owner FOX. Have they infringed upon the copyright held by FOX?
    To make it clear, we need to first look at the internal division and work processes of the Chinese subtitle teams. The popular teams on the internet generally have their own websites on the internet or BBS and their members, a combination of volunteers, are recruited from the internet. Their main work is the translation of foreign movies and TV plays and then making them into video files with Chinese subtitles. They deal with languages such as English, French, Germany, Japanese and Korean. Since English movies and TV programs are most numerous, the English division team is given priority. The members are distributed in various locations, including Chinese students in Europe and America, and they communicate with each other using internet messengers. The division of labor is precise: from searching and recording suitable movies and programs, to production of time axes, translation, proofreading, compression and the final BT release, each link has a person directly responsible.
    Take the recruitment notice of TLF SUBS for example. From it, we can clearly understand the background and division of labor on the team:
     Created in July 2002, TLF SUBS mainly translates movie subtitles, as well as subtitles of American TV programs. … In 4 years, more than 500 movie enthusiasts from around the world have contributed to the growth of TLF. Up to now, more than 2,000 original subtitles of movies and American programs have been released on TLF websites. TLF now boasts of more than 100 members … born in 1960s, 70s and 80s, with degrees from middle school, college, masters and doctorates  … including language experts from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Mainland China. Most of them have had experience of studying overseas and some are from world-famous universitiess, including Harvard. In order for a sustainable development, TLF has been recruiting people proficient in foreign languages, including English, Japanese, Korean, German, French, Russian, Italian, Spanish and others, for such posts as subtitle translator, listening translator and time axis producer.

    You are expected to satisfy the following basic conditions:
    (1) an enthusiast of movies or American plays;
    (2) networking conditions (10KB/S or above to download from public networks);
    (3) spare time (10 hours or above every month);
    (4) steadfast, earnest, with good work ethics, a teamwork spirit and a strong sense of responsibility; 
    (5) currently not working or holding any position at other subtitle teams for movies or American plays.

Languages and skills
I. For translators or listening translators (of English, Japanese, Korean, German, French, Italian, or Spanish, etc.)
1. Language ability:
     (1) English translation: able to understand movies with English subtitles; CET-6 (or CET-4 excellent level) or above; confident in language ability; proficient in typing; good ability in written Chinese language; English or Chinese majors are a plus.
     (2) English listening translation: understand 95% of dialogues without subtitles; overseas experience is a plus.
     (3) Listening translation for other languages: understand 95% or above of dialogues without subtitles; living experience in corresponding countries is a plus; for Japanese translation, JPT1 or above is required.
2. Job description:
     (1) Translation: TLF will provide a FTP server for members to download movies, as well as subtitles in foreign languages (including time axes); members play the movies with a player, translate the dialogues with Notepad, proofread the translation and hand it out.
     (2) Listening translation: TLF will provide a FTP server for members to download movies, as well as tutorials on time axis; members make time axis and Chinese subtitles with special software, and proofread and submit them. (After joining us, you may receive training on time axis)
II. Time axis producer
1. Skills:
     (1) English CET-6 or above, or at least one foreign language;
     (2) Proficient with at least one time axis software.
2. Job description: time axis service for listening translation, CC time axis
3. TLF-HDRip subtitles adjustment

     Because many subtitle teams coexist, the competition naturally grows intense among them. They compete in translation quality and speed. In less than 12 hours after each part of Prison Break is broadcast in the United States, shooter. cn, the largest subtitled video downloading site in China, provides the video file for downloading. In a few days thereafter, some subtitle teams re-release the file in different resolutions, including the common RMVB version, the Avi version (to support DVD machines with MPG4), the H264 version (resolution 960X544, audio AC 35.1), and the high-definition HDTV720 version (each part is 1.4G, resolution 1280X720, Dolby Surround 5.1).
     As a matter of fact, the existence of Chinese subtitle teams does not only mean that the programs are translated, but that Chinese audiences in the last year have been able to almost simultaneously view the programs with the American audience. Any hot new American programs, such as Desperate Housewives, Lost, Las Vegas, or 24, as long as it is popular, can be downloaded with BT from the internet.
      As to the unlicensed translation and whether the uploading and downloading conduct constitutes infringement, Prison Break is a special case, since it seems that the copyright holder, FOX, has not had its interests damaged. These subtitle teams seemingly have promoted Fox’s program free of charge. If China does not plan to import the program, FOX will never suffer any financial loss. However, the losses are huge for the Hollywood movies, which China does import and for the entire movie industry for the unlicensed translation and dissemination with BT. Therefore, Prison Break introduces our following topic, which extends to every aspect of the infringing BT networks. 


    Our journalist interviewed with Mr. Roberto De Vido by email, Asia-Pacific Communications Consultant of Motion Picture Association (MPA) regarding if BT may cause losses to the movie industry. Mr. De Vido said, “Content owners do not benefit when people view and consume illegal content and do not pay for it. The content owners are not able to derive revenue from that programming. Pirates make it more difficult for Chinese television stations to legitimately purchase content and offer it to their viewers/subscribers. As with all piracy, there is great economic harm done to distributors, exhibitors and broadcasters as well as to the copyright owners. The movie (and television) business involves literally millions of people worldwide, who work in and own home video retail and rental shops, movie theaters, television stations in every country on earth, as well as those who are directly involved in production and marketing. Chinese industry is affected far more than MPA member companies. At the moment it is virtually impossible for Chinese filmmakers to make money domestically from their productions; they must hope to sell overseas distribution rights and as a result make money in markets where piracy is less widespread. Ultimately, consumers who come to rely on movie pirates for their entertainment quickly learn that the pirates carry not only foreign films but also Chinese films.”
     Also, Mr. De Vido mentioned,” The biggest threat to the movie industry today is not from illegal DVD factories, but from peer-to-peer file sharing, which allows copyrighted content to be distributed around the globe instantaneously without any compensation to the artists and producers of such content. MPA research shows that piracy cost the film industry in Asia-Pacific US$5.5 billion in 2005. Of those losses, US$1.8 billion is estimated to have been the result of Internet piracy. 
      These are big numbers, and they are numbers that hurt everyone. The economic and social impact of IP theft is enormous and will have even greater, long-term implications if not brought under control. Making movies is an expensive business, and it is a risky business because of the potential low rate of return on investment. When large numbers of people "consume" movies without paying, these so-called "free riders" undermine the financial base of movie making. While free riders are even more harmful to developing movie companies seeking a sound financial footing in the marketplace, they threaten major movie studios as well. If millions of people continue to steal movies, the result will be that the movie companies, both large and small, will be unable to produce quality content.”


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