Tea Leaf Nation

A Mournful Farewell to Chinese Copyright Pirates

Millions of Chinese learned about the West using subtitle sites like Renren Yingshi. That's changing with a recent shutdown.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

A website that has for years been a leading provider of crowd-sourced Chinese subtitles for foreign movies, television shows, and online learning has been suddenly shut down as part of what appears to be a government effort to "mute" rampant online piracy of overseas entertainment. The popular 15-year-old website, Shooter.cn, announced its closure on Nov. 22, the same day that another leading Chinese source of translations and pirated video, YYeTs.com, announced that it had gone temporarily offline to "clean up" its content. The state-run English-language China Daily attributed the news to a campaign by China’s entertainment regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, to curb domestic theft of foreign copyrighted material. (This particular initiative was unusual because it didn’t target video downloads but was aimed at SRT’s, the standalone text files that contain subtitles and can be paired with videos.) Shooter.cn’s subtitle library had been created by volunteers and offered for download free of charge, making it a beloved resource on the Chinese web. Many took to social media to vent anger at Shooter’s demise and confusion over how the site apparently came to be in government crosshairs.

Shen Sheng, founder of Shooter.cn, wrote in a short but poignant farewell message on the Shooter homepage that he was closing down the operation after 15 years because the site had reached "the end of the road." He made no mention of the site’s closure being linked to any pressure from officials. Shen launched the site in 2000 and originally intended it as a book review site. Its name is an English transliteration of shutu, meaning "book road." It’s not clear how many people were using the site before it shuttered, but in an interview with the online tech channel of Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television in 2010, Shen said he had 600,000 registered users and many more users who hadn’t registered. In his farewell he wrote that he hoped "the value provided by Shooter website has been to allow more people to cross national barriers and to understand the other cultures of the world." 

Though Shen’s words may have struck some as grandiose, the public passion for Shooter is evident in the many tributes and outpourings of thanks that have piled up on Shen’s Weibo account page since the Nov. 22 closure. A netizen in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei in central China, posted beating heart and crying face emoticons and wrote: "Thank you for all the years of hard work. So grateful." The 21st Century Business Herald, a boundary-pushing paper based in China’s southern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou, headlined its piece about Shooter: "Tears on the keyboard: Subtitle group forced to shut site?"

There are vast directories of both pirated and legal foreign material available for download in China, including melodramatic Korean soap operas, BBC documentaries, and American sitcoms. The wealth of available viewing stands in stark contrast to China’s heavily censored entertainment offerings. China also caps the amount of foreign content that can be legally distributed in China both via theaters and on the web. It has become increasingly restrictive with online video content, banning more types of foreign shows. But pirated material still gets through, and for many in China, watching foreign programming has been an eye-opening experience. 

Yang Guobin, an expert on China’s Internet and an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, told Foreign Policy that resources like Shooter "make it possible for every Chinese" to watch foreign-language content. Yang went further to say that many people praise China’s online subtitle translation community for "inaugurating the most important ‘mental emancipation’ movement" since the late 1970s, when a wave of translated foreign literature ignited China’s collective imagination and profoundly affected people’s ways of thinking. What makes the subtitle movement stand out further, Yang added, is that it has been a grassroots cultural phenomenon, not elitist or intellectual. In a Nov. 24 column for online portal Sina.com, Beijing-based tech journalist Xin Haiguang wrote that most of the contributors to Shooter had been enthusiastic young Internet surfers who have helped make Chinese language culture more vibrant and "advanced communication and understanding between China and the West." He also wondered aloud whether foreign scriptwriters would actually mind the existence of sites like Shooter if they knew about them.  

The government view seems to be that it is indeed illegal. China Daily quoted Wang Qian, a professor at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai who specializes in intellectual property law, saying that "spreading privately translated subtitles" is not legal because the rights are held by the content producers and authorized distributors. When pirated videos are involved, the infringement is twofold, he said.

While public sympathy for Shooter seems relatively unclouded by piracy concerns, YYeTs.com, the other targeted site, has become something of a poster child for China’s piracy problem, at least in the eyes of American movie studios. Also known as Renren Yingshi, the site was established by a group of overseas Chinese who were studying in Canada in 2004. It has since become a leading site for pirated video downloads as well as subtitle downloads. In October, the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA, listed YYeTs as among the worst sources of online DVD piracy in the world. An MPAA spokesman said he could not immediately respond to a request for comment but would relay the query to his colleagues in Asia. However, MPAA said in its report that YYeTs.com was the most popular download site in China, with more than 1.8 million unique visitors in August alone. Caixin reported Nov. 23 that five of the company’s servers in China were sealed on Nov. 22, though the site still appears accessible.

Alleged pictures of the sealed hardware were circulating on Weibo along with messages both irritated and mournful.  One Chinese man based in Japan wrote that people who were upset at China for targeting the site should keep in mind that it was those in the United States who had called for its shuttering. A woman named Ning Han, whose profile says she works as an overdub artist, wrote that the university classes posted on YYeTs.com had "brought me out of the shadows" and the entertainment had brought her "abundant fun." She said it would be a loss for everyone if such a good platform for learning were to disappear. It wouldn’t be a loss for Hollywood, though; the MPAA claims piracy robs the studios of billions of dollars a year.

Alexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.

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