China’s Gaming Industry Started Another Round of Mass Campaign Against Piracy

Nearly 100 indie game developers in China recently issued a "Joint Declaration of Domestic Indie Games Against Taobao Piracy". This declaration claimed that Taobao (China's largest e-commerce site) and other online shopping platforms allow merchants to sell unauthorized game products, and called on relevant departments and platforms to strengthen supervision.

The declaration was prompted by the rights controversy over My Time at Portia, which has sold more than 1.7 million copies since its Steam launch in 2019 and has a 93% positive review rate. Since then, the game has been constantly copied and distributed without authorization. A large number of pirated copies of My Time at Portia are sold on Taobao for just RMB ¥0.99 (US $0.15), while the game's official price is RMB ¥98 (US $15).

The development team of My Time at Portia had spent months defending their rights and got 9 merchants on Taobao to take down their game through filing complaints. But as the mobile version of the game was launched overseas, piracy is making a comeback.

Due to China's versioning policy, the mobile version of the game is currently unavailable in mainland China, which gives piracy merchants a lot of opportunities to take advantage of. The mobile version is available on Google Play and App Store for $7.99, while on Taobao pirated copies can be obtained for only $1.

This time, Taobao rejected the developer’s complaint. As a result, the infuriated developing team joined forces with other developers and media who also wanted to boycott Taobao's pirated games and signed the aforementioned declaration, calling the authorities to step in, Taobao to take down pirating vendors, and the gaming community to support the rightful developers.

The declaration has caused a great reaction in the industry, with more than 7 million reads on Weibo (Chinese microblogging website). Piracy, a problem that has plagued China’s gaming market for years, was once again intensely debated by players.

(Posts with the hashtag “Joint Declaration of Domestic Indie Games Against Taobao Piracy” got over 7 million reads and 5 thousand discussions on Weibo)

Before Steam accepted payments in RMB, China's gaming industry was deep in the mire of piracy. At that time, there was little awareness of copyright, and hence difficult for Chinese Single-Player Game developers to break even. As a consequence, almost all Chinese game makers resorted to the online game market.

Aside from that, there was also a lack of access to licensed games in China back then - neither Playstation nor Xbox consoles had officially entered the Chinese market (Playstation 2 was briefly released in the Chinese market, but was not well received for complicated reasons).

With Steam and video game consoles gaining popularity in China, awareness of copyright is rapidly increasing. In 2020, China has the largest number of active users on Steam, with a share of 47%. Paying for their favorite games has become very common among Chinese gamers. 

Earlier this year, Tencent's Accelerator platform distributed pirated copies of Tale of Immortal by sharing Steam accounts, allowing users to download the game for just ¥2.8 ($0.4), while the MSRP is ¥68 ($10). This had caused great public outrage on the Chinese Internet and prompted Tencent to quickly apologize.

Yet the market demand for cheap pirated copies still exists. Digital distribution platforms have not only boosted the sales of licensed games in China, but also facilitated many unscrupulous individuals. Taking advantage of loopholes such as account sharing, pirates can sell offline versions of games at almost zero cost, and selling them in large quantities on platforms such as Taobao has made it a huge gray market.

As of press time, the joint declaration has drawn the attention of Chinese regulators. On August 24, Chongqing Copyright Association issued an announcement that it will organize relevant professionals in accordance with the law to regularly investigate suspected game piracy on various platforms, support game developers in their fight for the legitimate rights and interests of their own works, and assist manufacturers in their rights defense actions.

(“Announcement on Supporting Game Manufacturers to Defend Their Legal Rights” by Chongqing Audio-visual and Digital Publishing Association and Chongqing Copyright Association) 

For My Time at Portia and many of the indie game developers who support them, this announcement brings some administrative support to ensure their rights are protected. However, a complete ban on unlicensed game goods on Taobao would deny gamers' access to most console games, since many of the game discs are imported in a way that is not completely legal, and clearly not by authorized retailers.

The long-term impact of this anti-piracy mass campaign on China’s gaming market remains to be seen.

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