Fansub apocalypse: How copyright protection laws deprive Chinese fans from accessing non-Chinese content
Chan Ji, Adam Kouki, Linxin Liu
In February 2021, the Chinese government cracked down on Renren—a platform that provides more than 8 million users with community produced subtitled versions of foreign films and TV-shows (hereafter: fansubs). The accusation: copyright infringement (Global Times 2021). At surface the Renren operation seems unlawful but to a certain extent innocent. The fact that fans translate the content implies that the content does not have a formal existence in China and thus no copyright registration. Otherwise, there would be no impetus for enthusiasts of said content to produce subtitles. A paradox that indicates alternative incentives for the Chinese government…
Picture 1: Incomplete Anime fansub (retrieved from https://aminoapps.com/ under creative commons license)
Anime to politics
The practice of fansubbing originates from anime fan culture in the late twentieth century. It is a participatory effort of international English-speaking enthusiasts of Japanese animated video material to access and distribute content not available via authorized distribution channels (González 2007, 206; Lee 2011, 1138). Because these fan communities respect the producers of this content, they subject their practice to an unspoken rule: once a licensed version of the anime exists, fansubbed versions should no longer be circulated (Lee 2011, 1138).
In the Chinese context, fansubs stretch communities far beyond the anime fan community. Fansubs are available in various genres, originating from many countries outside of China; they introduce Western culture to Chinese audiences (Yao 2021, 481-482). Moreover, fansubs are an instrument to bypass the Chinese Regulation on the Administration of Television Dramas (2000.06.15). A regulation that demands no television drama to be distributed, broadcasted, imported or exported unless it has been examined and granted a “Television Program Distribution License” by an official Chinese Television Program Examination Organ at the provincial level or higher. This regulation causes content to be censored and or adjusted to the wishes of government officials. Scenes of Hollywood films are removed or specifically added for official Chinese distributions (Bisset 2019). For example, in Marvel film Iron Man 3, a Chinese doctor that performs surgery on main character Tony Stark has four minutes more screen time in the Chinese version than in the international release where he is only present for a few frames. “Tony doesn’t have to do this alone—China can help.” the doctor says. The additional scenes caused backlash from bloggers and TV-hosts that deemed the scenes to be pointless (Ashcraft 2013). Thus, fansubbed versions are being circulated regardless of the existence of licensed versions. Fansubs serve different purposes in China than in other countries as the practice is a reaction to different types of restrictions than exclusively a language barrier. This research into the practice of fansubbing will be specifically situated in China’s political and economic actuality. In doing so, this project attempts to explain the importance of fansubs in China’s media landscape and the controversies around the practice.
Renren case study
Renren is one of the earliest and largest fansub communities in China (Wang 2017, 167). Thus, analysis of Renren’s current conditions and historical developments presents a representative delineation of functions of mainstream Chinese fansub culture. A case study about this platform offers insights to the workings and scale of such operations, tying into the actuality and political controversy surrounding them. Especially the process of Renren transgressing from a fansub online community to profitable video sharing platform is a point of focus in this project, as the monetization of copyrighted foreign content is one of the grounds for the government prosecution (Zhang 2021). At the same time, the communication technology development, censorship system as well as copyright law and other related regulations are contextual conditions that must be mentioned while analyzing Renren’s platformization.
This study consists of two parts. A historical investigation of Renren is conducted through news reports, research studies, blog entries and other secondary online sources. Additionally, an empirical analysis of the historical development of Renren’s homepage is performed to understand the object from a primary perspective. A database of Renren historic homepages is compiled using the Wayback Machine—a digital archive of web pages. The first data entry collected is from June 2011 followed up by homepages of every subsequent interval of 6 months until December 2020. The early 2021 government crackdown caused the group to reorganize. To show the impact of this government intervention on the website, data from January 2021 and October 2021 is also included. The aggregated data is analyzed for changes in navigation bar titles and section titles to illustrate the historical development in main functions and services provided by Renren.
Video 1: Historical development of Renren Homepage
Fansub Group to Platform analysis (2004-present)
The Renren fansub group started in 2004 as a nonprofit online fan group to provide an infrastructure for the circulation and consumption of American television shows. The group created Chinese subtitles with additional information for the content and shared videos among an acquainted fanbase (Wang 2017, 168). In 2006, the Renren fansub group started a forum to promote discourse and circulate their content to larger audiences. The forum provided a public space for audiences to discuss foreign television shows and movies across genres, an antecedent for the platformization of the Renren infrastructure (Plantin, et al. 2018, 298-299).
The increasing popularity of foreign fansubbed videos inevitably obstructed the censorship against “vulgar, obscene, and violent content”, causing the Chinese government to continuously investigate and crack down on fansub groups including Renren since 2008 (Xie and Huang 2010, 429). After Renren was investigated by the National Copyright Administration of China in 2009, the group vowed to terminate the infrastructure for download links. In an attempt to reposition the operation in 2010, Renren started to provide subtitles for freely accessible online programs of American Universities—a service that was appreciated and popularized by governmental media outlets (Gan 2021).
After four years of relatively stable operation, the government shut down Renren’s website and confiscated its servers in 2014. Renren could no longer operate under its infamous domain name yyets.com and used zimuzu.tv to continue its effort. In January 2017, Renren reclaimed yyets.com, but it became a dashboard site containing several service links including Renren mobile phone app download links, social media links, a translation service and a data analysis service other services provided by Renren. There was no video content available on this website but it did provide a link redirecting users to active domains for video downloading or streaming (initially zimuzu.tv, later to rrys.tv). Usage of yyets.com as a protective cover was a strategy adopted to keep the actual platform for content circulation agile by preventing the commonly known domain name from being in direct violation of copyright laws (Renren fansub group_Baidu baike 2021).
Picture 2: yyts.com protective cover page (accessed via Wayback Machine entry of 03/2021)
IIn early 2021, Shanghai police cracked down on Renren. The police arrested fourteen business managers of Renren for alleged copyright infringements. None of the translators were arrested (Xinhua 2021). Government officials accuse Renren of pirating more than 20,000 television shows and films and of earning more than 16 million yuan ($2.47 million) illicit income, netted from membership fees, advertising fees and the sale of hard drives containing illegal content. Although this incident was identified as a major copyright infringement case, none of the volunteers involved in the fansub group were affected. After several months of silence, Renren fansub group redesigned the website (yyets.com) and started to share videos with translated subtitles again. The new website resembles western on-demand video streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video (see Video 1).
Figure 1: navigation titles on historical Renren homepages
Figure 1 illustrates the change in navigation tiles accessed via the Wayback Machine. The 2021 shutdown caused ads, news, Renren Weibo, and online streaming to remain, which characterizes a softer approach from the government when compared to the total shutdown in late 2014. Moreover, the visualisation provides insights that confirm the historic developments as described by secondary sources.
From 2011 to 2021, video and subtitle downloading remained Renren’s major functions. Renren relied on magnet links to distribute videos at first. Since 2019, the platform has mainly depended on online streaming technologies. Early fansub groups mostly used peer-to-peer file-sharing networks to distribute videos or other content because of their economic advantages. Fansub groups usually did have limited capital to maintain high-capacity servers. Peer-to-peer network downloading was more cost-efficient, which helped the groups to reduce the pressure on their servers. But as China’s Internet speed got faster, audiences started to prefer video streaming over downloading, which caused fansub groups to adapt (Li 2016, 403).
Though Renren has always presented itself as a nonprofit community, advertisements have been a constant factor throughout the analyzed period (with the exception of the 07/2017 datapoint). Advertising banners are present on the top, middle and bottom sections of the homepage. This indicates monetization, but it does not exclude the possibility that ads are only run for maintenance purposes. Some of the monetization related contents were on the fringes of Chinese law. Gambling and pretty girl online streamings containing erotic material were both being promoted for extended periods. Since 2019, Renren also provides paid business translation services and data analysis services, which indicates a diversification strategy to become less dependent on income from controversial activities.
A pattern, not described by the consulted secondary sources, is the shift away from dedicated forums to subgroups on prominent social media platforms like Weibo, Wechat and Douyin. The Renren forum—pivotal in the growth of the platform—was shut down in 2016. While the Weibo page is still accessible since the shut down, links to all other external platforms have been taken down.
Figure 2: navigation titles of protective domain name yyets.com
Figure 2 illustrates how, with the exemption of the short hiatus of navigation title Renren dictionary, functions were gradually added to the cover page. None of the navigation titles were a direct practice of illegal operations, resulting in no incentive to remove options once added. While the page used to have navigation titles in common with the actual Renren homepage, the 2021 restructuring caused the platform to cease the operation of the protective page, causing the platform to offer only the services provided in the final record of figure 1. A possible explanation is that the prosecuted business managers have left the group, causing a drain in human resources. Though, the platform has not communicated reasons for the termination of their legal services
Fansub groups like Renren provide a platformized infrastructure for foreign content to their audiences. Fansub platforms like Renren help Chinese residents to bypass the government’s censorship efforts and facilitate an infrastructure that exists alongside the authorized infrastructures that are of an exclusionary nature. They exist on the intersection of infrastructures and platforms in terms of their service to public interests and their economic logic (Plantin et.al 2018, 305-306). The origins of captioning groups rely on human-to-human relationships (Yao 2021, 481). Likewise, Renren’s peer-to-peer origins and its original forums and discussion boards caused the platform to become a focal point for a wide range of different audiences. This social component granted the platform network effects throughout mainstream media consumption cultures as well as various specific subcultures, resulting in an intensification of interactions and data (Srnicek 2017, 45). The monetization of Renren that started in 2018 characterizes a shift from peer-to-peer content circulation to cloud-based content distribution for a monthly fee resulting in a platformized infrastructure as described by Plantin et al. (2018, 298): it is the product of digital technology in a neoliberal, political, and economic climate, that paradoxically exists in the Chinese political context.
According to Star and Bowker (2006, 241), competent infrastructures for information require stable long-term storage capabilities. Renren’s instability hails from the platform’s guerilla practices; before the government crackdown, the platform habitually changed its domain name and hosts to obscurify its sources as an effort to prevent prosecution for copyright infringement (Zhang and Mao 2013, 47). The 2014 sitewide shutdown caused Renren to split its original organization and establish a new website. The original Renren domain name became a mere shell, containing their services and a new site for storing media content until the 2021 prosecution. Renren’s diversification strategy is followed up by a specialization strategy indicating that the platform is currently going through a devolutionary phase (Plantin et al. 2018, 296).
For the Chinese audience, Fansubbing initially was a self-motivated apparatus to access and circulate American media content. This caused communities to establish relationships with foreign corporate media (Zhang and Mao 2013, 48). The early operations of fansubbing groups that purely consisted of translation and dissemination of subtitles can be seen as full participatory culture. In contrast to one-way media practices, participatory cultures like fansubbing groups emerge as a networked practise and collective intelligence (Jenkins 2009, 32). Fansubbing practices heavily rely on participatory efforts, but because of their double role in the Chinese context, late-stage groups also have a strong consumptive component. This indicates growing capitalistic incentives throughout the lifecycle of the groups, a phenomenon that is also illustrated by the information extracted from the homepage database. Though, focussing merely on this consumptive component creates an incomplete conceptualization of the practice as the skill, expertise and involvement are fundamental for this practice (Jenkins 2009, 9). In this regard, the efforts of the Chinese government to shut down the practice did only cause the business operators to be prosecuted, which signals that the government thoroughly considered the role of translators as productive entities.
Concluding, Fansub groups do not violate Chinese regulations when they are not for profit. Fansubs, as intercultural communicators, play an important role in the introduction of western culture to Chinese audiences. To a certain extent, this role is appreciated by the Chinese government. Though, the inevitable introduction of themes that are not welcomed by the Chinese government subjects fansub groups to constant monitoring and occasional prosecution when the government finds grounds to litigate. The government’s mixed attitude towards fansubs does not lessen the crucial positions these groups have in the provision of infrastructure for connecting Chinese audiences to the global visual media sphere. Chinese Fansub’s loose definition of ownership and intellectual property is in stark contrast with their predecessors focussed on anime, partly because they span across many genres and exist for many different reasons. Therefore, the word fansub does not fully encircle all of its dimensions in the Chinese context. Producers and consumers of fansub content are not hyperenthausiast devotees of a specific genre, but rather interested in a platitude of offerings not available in their home country—some of which’ formal distribution channels are still in progress, others that will probably never see the light of day in the Celestial Empire.
Ashcraft, Brian. 2013. “Why Many In China Hate Iron Man 3’S Chinese Version”. Kotaku. https://kotaku.com/why-many-in-china-hate-iron-man-3s-chinese-version-486840429.
Bisset, Jennifer. 2019. “Marvel Is Censoring Films For China, And You Probably Didn’t Even Notice”. CNET. https://www.cnet.com/features/marvel-is-censoring-films-for-china-and-you-probably-didnt-even-notice/.
Gan, Nectar. 2021. “How A Chinese Website For Pirated TV Shows Became A Cultural Touchstone For Millennials”. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2021/03/02/business/renren-yingshi-intl-dst-hnk/index.html.
Global Times. 2021. “China Crackdown On Well-Known Fansub Groups To Protect Intellectual Property Rights” Globaltimes.Cn. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202102/1214873.shtml.
Jenkins, Henry. 2009. Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. The MIT Press.
Li, Luzhou Nina. 2016. “Rethinking The Chinese Internet: Social History, Cultural Forms, And Industrial Formation”. Television & New Media 18 (5): 393-409. doi:10.1177/1527476416667548.
Plantin, Jean-Christophe, Carl Lagoze, Paul N Edwards, and Christian Sandvig. 2016. “Infrastructure Studies Meet Platform Studies In The Age Of Google And Facebook”. New Media & Society 20 (1): 293-310. doi:10.1177/1461444816661553.
Renren fansub group_Baidu baike. 2021. “After four years of relatively stable operation, the government shut down Renren’s website and confiscated its servers in 2014.”
Baidu baike. Accessed October 29. https://baike.baidu.com/item/人人影视/8666514?ivk_sa=1022817p.
Srnicek, Nick. 2017. Platform Capitalism, ‘Platform Capitalism’. Polity Press, ISBN-13: 978-1-5095-0490-9.
Star, Susan Leigh, and Geoffrey C. Bowker. 2010.“How to Infrastructure.” In Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Social Consequences of ICTs, Updated Student Edition. edited by Leah A. Lievrouw and Sonia M. Livingstone, London: SAGE. 2006: 230–45. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781446211304.
Renren fansub group_Baidu baike”. 2021. Baidu baike. Accessed October 29. https://baike.baidu.com/item/人人影视/8666514?ivk_sa=1022817p.
Wang, Dingkun. 2017 “Fansubbing in China – With Reference to the Fansubbing Group YYeTs‘’. The Journal of Specialised Translation.Issue 28:165-190.
Xie, Shuang, and Jing Huang. 2010. “Opportunities, Restrictions, And Challenges For Web TV In China”. Chinese Journal Of Communication 3 (4): 421-434. doi:10.1080/17544750.2010.516576.
Xinhua. 2021. “Xinhua Headlines: The end of Renren Fansub – Xinhua | News.Cn”. 2021. Xinhuanet.Com. Xinhua http://m.xinhuanet.com/2021-02/07/c_1127077246.htm
Yao, Shuting.2021 “Love My House, Love My Bird: An Intercultural Communication Perspective on Chinese Fansub Practices.” Journal of intercultural communication research 50, no. 5 : 481–505.
Zhang, Phoebe. 2021. “China Detains 14 For Film And TV Piracy Linked To Popular Subtitle Site”. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/3120416/china-busts-film-and-tv-piracy-ring-renren-yingshi-subtitle-site-raid?module=perpetual_scroll&pgtype=article&campaign=3120416
Zhang, Weiyu, and Chengting Mao. 2013. “Fan Activism Sustained And Challenged: Participatory Culture In Chinese Online Translation Communities”. Chinese Journal Of Communication 6 (1): 45-61. doi:10.1080/17544750.2013.753499.