Recently, a 120 million users mobile application, Toutiao (“headline” in Chinese), got on the nerves of traditional and Internet news publishers in China. In late June, China's Internet giant Sohu sued Toutiao for copyright infringement and unfair competition before the Beijing Haidian District Court.
Like Flipboard, Toutiao offers customized news content aggregation based on users’ personal input or their social network activities. However, unlike Flipboard, Toutiao would crawl content and reformat it onto its own application. In doing so, "we have to make a copy of the content on our own servers. But this is for better readability as well as compatibility when transfering content from webpages to our mobile application," Toutiao’s CEO Zhang Yiming explained.
Sohu claimed that Toutiao infringed its copyrights by reformatting Sohu’s original content onto Toutiao's own app. According to Sohu, this "reformatting" technology, instead of directing users to the original page, would divert traffic and ads revenues from Sohu's website. Sohu asked for injunctive relief and ￥11,000,000 in damages.
Toutiao’s CEO responded that the app is more like Google News, which is not meant to produce or publish news but merely to recommend and deliver the aggregated and compiled news to users on their mobile phones. "When third-party publishers do not want their contents to be recommended and displayed on our app, they can opt out by embedding a no-transform protocol on their webpage, so when users click the headline, they will be directed to the original page instead of our reformatted news article," Toutiao's website explains.
Many analysts considered Toutiao a content provider, which may be infringing on the news publishers’ copyrights, rather than a mobile search engine. However, arguments favoring the public interest in accessing more information and knowledge are also flourishing.
On July 9, Toutiao counter-claimed against Sohu on business disparagement. This dispute might take some time to be decided and we will keep you updated on further developments. However, an initial conclusion can be drawn. Today’s Chinese news and media industry does not believe anymore that to “steal a book is an elegant offense.”