About two months ago, with just a few clicks of a mouse, many US TV series fans in China were able to watch their favorite dramas online for free.
They had little choice but to watch unlicensed video clips online because domestic cable channels did not broadcast the shows. But now it is a lot harder for viewers to find such unauthorized online screenings.
In November 2010, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) announced a ban on any forms of trading and supplying of unauthorized foreign TV series. Along with the ban, the Ministry of Culture launched a six-month nationwide crackdown on counterfeiting in October to halt the theft of intellectual property rights (IPRS) and promote public awareness of IPRS protection.
In response, China's major video-hosting websites, including Youku.com, Tudou.com and Ku6.com, removed unauthorized foreign TV series videos.
A podcastor, using an online name "Xueselaoxie" on the Nasdaq-listed Youku.com, said some 7,000 unauthorized videos of American TV series he had uploaded were deleted by the website in a single night.
To fans of foreign TV series, the ban might be a nightmare. But to the country, it was an important step in fighting IPRS infringement, said Li Yongqiang, assistant to the CEO of Beijing Baofeng Inc, an online video-hosting service.
Similar regulations were issued earlier. But never had they received as many reactions as this one, Li said.
"I believe the entire online video-sharing industry realized the importance of a healthy development environment, and people's awareness of IPRS will be raised," Li said.
Following the order from the central government, many provinces strengthened their efforts to crack down on online IPRS infringement. In Northeast China's Jilin province, the provincial copyright administration shut down two websites, o2sky.com and imdj.net, after they were found illegally providing unauthorized videos of South Korean movies.
The ban has resulted in a reshuffle of the online video-sharing industry in China, with major domestic websites gearing up to offer copyrighted imports of TV series and films. Sohu TV already offers many copyrighted online videos of American TV series, including Gossip Girl, The Big Bang Theory and Nikita, after signing agreements with Warner Bros.
Youku.com signed agreements with three major South Korean TV stations - MBC, KBS and SBS and has purchased the rights from Warner Bros. to stream the hit movie Inception, charging 5 yuan (75 US cents) for each viewing. Additionally, Tudou.com is trying to produce its own films and TV series.
"From website operators to video producers, content copyright has become more crucial to the survival of video portals," said Li Shanyou, CEO of Ku6.com.
"It's good to protect IPRS, but I would still like to watch the TV series online for free," said Cui Shan, a citizen of Changchun, capital city of Jilin province.
"Definitely there are markets for foreign TV series or movies in China," Cui said. "I think those websites should import more copyrighted movies and keep offering them at a low price to win audiences."
China now has more than 200 million video website users and the market is growing, said Li Yongqiang. More paid online video programs will emerge as the cost of importing authorized films and TV programs rises.
Li said it is likely that video-sharing websites will cooperate to import copyrighted programs from overseas in order to lower the cost of watching TV series online.
The authors are writers with Xinhua News Agency.