Friends Reunion: The One with the Copyright Battle

By Tanya Saraswat
June 10, 2021

“It is not surprising to see China censoring content that is politically or culturally sensitive [but] Bilibili’s actions gave it an unfair advantage within the Chinese market.”

Friends castFriends is one of the most beloved American shows. The characters and the scenes from the series have remained in the heart of fans for almost two decades. The last episode aired nearly 17 years ago, but recently the cast gathered for a special episode, titled “Friends Reunion.” This was also beloved by fans across the world who watched the series. The exclusive streaming and broadcasting rights were conferred upon HBO Max for five years. In the countries where HBO Max does not operate, these rights were sold to different channels and Over-the-Top (OTT) media service platforms, such as the OTT giant Zee5 in India.

Battlefield in China

The uncensored version of the special episode created a battleground for China’s video sites. The earlier seasons of Friends were not aired in China until Sohu.com attained the rights in 2010, which expired in 2018. Once the rights were granted, it became evident that the young people of China loved the series also. Therefore, a huge fan base in China was waiting for the special reunion episode.

The exclusive rights for broadcasting the episode were sold to OTT platforms iQiyi, Tencent Video and Alibaba-backed Youku. The three websites disseminated a censored version of the episode after removing the cameo appearances from Lady Gaga, Korean boy band BTS and Justin Bieber. It has been alleged that these celebrities have defamed China in the past. These three video sites gained a significant number of new subscribers thanks to the episode. However, some of the users started uploading clips from the episode on Bilibili- an additional video streaming platform. This acted as a threat to the target market of the three OTT platforms who paid the fee for streaming.

Additionally, before taking down the episodes, Bilbili had not only published the highlights from the special episode, but also videos of Lady Gaga singing with Lisa Kudrow and Justin Bieber, which were censored in the version for the Chinese audience. As a result, the audience gravitated towards Bilbili in order to access the uncensored and complete version of the episode.

Thus, the official broadcasters jointly issued a statement contending that Bilbili was providing a platform to promote piracy of the “Friends Reunion” episode and simultaneously disrespecting and disregarding the intellectual property rights. Bilbili did not issue a statement, but a search for “Friends” still shows a few episodes on the site, including a video featuring the opening song, “I’ll Be There for You.”

What the Future Holds

Bilbili was not fined because the next morning, after the release of the broadcasters’ statement, it took down the episode. There is no information available as to the possibility of a future suit against Bilbili by the government or the group. However, the Chinese government passed an amendment to the Copyright Law in 2020, which took effect on June 1, 2021. One of the key points of the amendment is an increase in the fine levied upon a party infringing one’s copyright. The fine has increased from RMB 500,00 to RMB 1 million. The nature of calculation has also been changed to either the actual loss suffered by the copyright holder or the illegal profits earned by the infringer. The retrospective effect of the amendment is yet to be assessed. Hence, time will tell the fate of Bilbili.

It is not surprising to see China censoring content that is politically or culturally sensitive. For instance, political topics like Falun Gong, democracy, the Tiananmen Square protests and disparity of wealth are censored on the internet in China. While many disagree with such censorship, Bilibili’s actions gave it an unfair advantage within the Chinese market. Hopefully, China’s recent and more stringent policy change will prevent such circumstances and losses for rights holders going forward.

Image source: By An article in The Baltimore Sun, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20960240

The Author

Tanya Saraswat

Tanya Saraswat is a third-year Bachelor of Business Administration and Bachelor of Legislative Law student at Kirit P Mehta School of Law, Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, Navi Mumbai. She has a keen interest in Intellectual Property Rights Law and Corporate Law. She served as President of the Alternative Dispute Redressal Club at her school for 2019-2020 and has published papers and articles with several reputed journals and blogs. In addition to being a law student she is also a professional dancer.

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