Filmmaker’s Fracas with School Highlights Copyright Concerns

A film graduate accuses his university of pirating the movie he made as part of his coursework.

Zhu Hang (left) poses for a photo with members of the film crew in Lüliang, Shanxi province, April 3, 2013. Courtesy of Zhu Hang and Sixth Tone.

Whose movie is it, anyway?

That’s the question at the center of a copyright conflict between a university in southwestern China and an alumnus filmmaker whose work was distributed by his alma mater without his permission.

Zhu Hang accuses Sichuan University of Media and Communications of violating his copyright by distributing a movie that he produced as a student in 2014. The 26-year-old filmmaker said the school organized a public screening of his film, The Gracefully Dancing Girl, during its anniversary celebrations in May and sold DVD copies afterward, all without his permission.

“If I cannot get a reasonable resolution, I will use the force of the law to safeguard my rights,” Zhu told Sixth Tone.

The incident has received particular media attention because Zhu’s film is slated for public release in China later this year, following screenings at festivals in Australia and Germany. Set during China’s rapid development in the late 1990s, the film, which follows five friends after their high school graduation, has received positive reviews and multiple awards.

Having pirated DVDs floating around could deal a blow to the movie’s earning potential. Knockoff versions of domestic and Hollywood movies, as well as of video games and even computer software, are openly sold in marketplaces across China, posing a threat to businesses and highlighting the difficulty of protecting intellectual property (IP).

But there are signs that more effort is being made to enforce China’s copyright law. In 2016, police investigated more than 200,000 cases involving IP, and around 18,000 individuals were convicted on piracy or counterfeiting charges. A survey of 12,600 people released in April found that there is growing satisfaction over how IP rights are protected, and in the same month, the Copyright Society of China launched an online monitoring center that scans the internet in real time for copyright infringements.

Yet copyright cases can still be tricky, according to Lu Bingbin, an associate professor who specializes in IP law at Nanjing University, in the eastern province of Jiangsu. For instance, Lu told Sixth Tone, companies and organizations can use an individual’s work for professional activities under the provision of “service work” if the work was produced in fulfillment of employment obligations.

However, Lu said the provision should not apply in Zhu’s case, since the student-university relationship doesn’t constitute an employee-employer contract. “The student retains full copyright to his movie, even if it was submitted to the university to satisfy graduation requirements,” Lu said.

Following Zhu’s accusation, Sichuan University of Media and Communications admitted in an online statement on Tuesday that the university’s film and television school had not communicated with Zhu before making 2,750 copies of the movie for distribution and promotion. The university maintains that DVDs were given to students for free for “study purposes,” while Zhu claims they were sold. The school said it has started recalling the DVDs and apologized for the incident.

“We will respect the law, and we never avoid questions,” an earlier statement from the university read.

Zhu, however, says that when he contacted the university as soon as he became aware of the issue, staff refused to give him answers. “They had a rude attitude and wouldn’t apologize,” he said. “They told me I should appreciate the school as a [former] student.”

The filmmaker said he decided to come forward to highlight an issue that he believes extends beyond his alma mater.

“I wanted to address the problem of vague copyright [regulations] in the arts education industry so that other students won’t suffer the same injustice,” Zhu said. “It’s a wake-up call to raise awareness of copyright protection because every drop of sweat that we put in our work deserves respect.”

Additional reporting by Liang Chenyu.

— This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone