The Hollywood Reporter recently did a story, entitled, “China’s Looming Entertainment Problem: Not Enough Lawyers,” discussing, among other things, intellectual property in China. Our own Beijing-based China entertainment lawyer, Mathew Alderson, was interviewed for that story and The Hollywood Reporter has kindly agreed to allow us to run a post based on the original interview.

 

Hollywood Reporter:  We’d like to first give a general overview of the state of entertainment and IP law in China.

Alderson:  There is no separate body of entertainment law as such, but it helps to understand how China generally views foreign investment. China limits the industries in which it accepts foreign investment or foreign business operations.  Foreign involvement in Chinese industries is categorized as “encouraged,” “permitted,” “restricted” or “prohibited”. Industries move between, or appear within, the various categories from time to time depending on the changing requirements of the Chinese authorities and the economy they oversee. An awareness of these categories not only assists foreigners to avoid illegal or unwise investments, it allows us also to understand the level of regulation to be expected in a particular industry as well as the business entity prescribed for that industry. Foreign involvement in the entertainment business in general, and the business of operating cinemas in particular, is “restricted” in China. It follows that there are substantial barriers to entry into the cinema business and the China film production business. These businesses are heavily regulated. Foreigners cannot operate in these areas independently of Chinese partners, so a co-production is required to make a film and a joint venture is required to set up a movie theatre.

As far as intellectual property is concerned, at first glance China’s legislative framework is world-class. This is largely because such a framework is a requirement of China’s WTO membership. The trouble is that this framework has been grafted onto a society with little frame of reference for its underlying concepts and the level of protection of intellectual property rights in China is often less than satisfactory despite the generally good quality of the laws themselves. I give some examples of current problems below.

In China, authority to adjudicate infringement and damages is vested in the courts and administrative agencies. So you have a situation in which the Chinese Patent Office, for instance, can make its own infringement determinations, award damages and issue injunctions without the need for a complaint filed in court.

One of the big issues at present is that foreign technology transfer is sometimes a pre-condition for market access. Trademark piracy remains a persistent and serious problem. Local businesses routinely register enterprise names that use famous US trademarks in misleading ways, often in conjunction with goods or services for which the US brand is famous. What we Westerners would see as Bad faith filings and trademark “squatting” are commonplace. And, as everyone is aware, DVD and online piracy are rampant. The Chinese government itself reckons that 15-20% of all products made in China are counterfeits accounting for around 8% of gross domestic product.

 

Hollywood Reporter:  Is this field developing fast enough to serve the booming Chinese film industry (expected to eclipse North America as the world’s largest film market in 5-10 years, as I’m sure you’re aware — the impressive growth numbers abound)?

Alderson:  I think it is developing steadily, but whether it serves any particular industry is another question.

 

Hollywood Reporter:  Is it reasonable to assume that more legal disputes will arise in the film and entertainment sector as the stakes rise and the value of the business grows?

Alderson:  Yes. That is a straightforward outcome of the sort of growth we are seeing. More business means more disputes in any market.

 

Hollywood Reporter:  This piece covering the “Lost in Thailand” suit quotes a consultant who suggests many studios are ill-equipped to handle IP protection issues (“Practitioners in the film industry have relatively weak awareness of intellectual property rights protection and very few companies would equip themselves with a complete team of lawyers in a film project or seek professional legal advice in advance.”) Do you agree with that assessment?

Alderson:  That may be the case with certain purely Chinese studios but I do not think it applies to everyone else.

 

Hollywood Reporter:  What kind of legal issues/problems/complaints do you think Hollywood parties are most likely to encounter/make in China?

Alderson:  It is generally assumed that China’s quota on foreign films is the biggest challenge but the quota has no application to domestic Chinese films or to official co-productions because these are regarded as domestic films. The biggest challenges are getting films approved by the Chinese censors and then getting paid a full share of box office. Foreign films must be cleared by the censors before they can be considered for the quota. Censorship comes first. China’s lack of any age rating system provides it with a useful and additional justification for censorship decisions. Censorship is a key issue because during the first 30 years or so of the PRC, foreign films were entirely banned and the film medium was seen mostly as a means of achieving “social enlightenment”. The government remains determined to subordinate the growth of the film industry to outcomes such as social stability and morality.

 

Hollywood Reporter:  What legal and other protections could and should a Hollywood studio seek when doing business in China?

Alderson:  There is a tendency to assume that US law and jurisdiction should apply to all contracts in all circumstances.  US law and jurisdiction are of little value unless the Chinese party has assets in the US. Just getting this jurisdiction piece right can be a critical form of protection.

 

Hollywood Reporter:   Are legal protections likely to be weaker for foreign parties than local counterparts in Chinese courts?

Alderson:   These days, foreign companies seeking to enforce contracts can often obtain good results in Chinese courts if the contract was written with the Chinese courts in mind and if the other party is a private company of a similar size. Having said that, it certainly is more difficult when you are suing a State Owned Enterprise (SOE) or a Government Agency.

 

Hollywood Reporter: Given that foreign (Hollywood) investment into China’s film industry, and partnership with local players, is continually increasing in scale, is it realistic to hope that new IP protection regulations might soon be passed and enforced in China?

Alderson:  Yes. Improvements are occurring all the time.  But at this point, the problem is not so much the laws and regulations, but rather, their enforcement.

 

A palpable sense of excitement is starting to build here in Beijing as the Third Beijing International Film Festival approaches. Taking place April 16 – 23, The Beijing International Film Festival (BIFF) is emerging as a natural focal point for Hollywood’s preoccupation with the Chinese film business and has already become a regular date on the international festival circuit. This is hardly surprising, given Chinese box office growth of 36% in 2011 — growth that allowed China to overtake Japan and become the second-biggest film market. Compare that to a flat performance at best in the US during the same period and you get some idea of what is driving Hollywood’s interest, if not its anxiety.

Tickets for the Sino-Foreign Film Co-Production Forum on April 21 will be red hot and places at the MPA’s Film Workshops on April 21 and 22 are already in great demand.

Though this is always a very busy period for us as clients and friends fly into Beijing from all over the world, I will try to provide some updates and observations as the Festival progresses.

The following are already hot topics:

  • Why did the Chinese censors pull Tarantino’s Django Unchained on its opening day in China?
  • Does the huge success of purely Chinese films such as Lost In Thailand and Journey to the West presage a new era in which Hollywood films are marginalized in China? (Hollywood certainly hopes not).
  • What will the recently-announced merger of SARFT and GAPP mean for foreign producers and distributors? What will the new “super-agency” even be called?
  • When pictures like Iron Man 3  reportedly opt out of official co-production status (and the larger share of box office that goes with it) does this mean that co-productions are just too hard?
  • Will the new national administration relax the de facto prohibition on co-production joint ventures (i.e. permanent legal entities with physical assets and ongoing operations in China) as opposed to the restrictions on co-productions (i.e. discrete pictures made in cooperation with a Chinese partner)?

If I find anyone with the answers I’ll be sure to let you know. What do you think?