Is Chen Shoufu China’s Dmitri Sklyarov?

by on November 30, 2007 · 12 comments

Techdirt points to this story on a Chinese programmer who’s been arrested for developing an add-on to instant messaging software. I should state my biases up front: if using unauthorized software is a crime, they should come and get me, because I use Adium (and before that Fire and Gerry’s ICQ) for my instant messaging needs. It sounds like this guy’s product is the Chinese version of Adium, which means that in this respect China’s copyright laws are even more screwed up the those in the United States.

I am, however, a little bit puzzled about the exact detail of what he did and what laws he’s accused of breaking. From the article:

China has the world’s second-biggest Internet market after the U.S., with more than 160 million users, and it is a thriving market for such add-ons. Coral QQ has about 40.6 million users, according to Chinese computer-science publication Pchome.

Tencent first complained to Mr. Chen in late 2002, saying Coral QQ violated its copyright and warning him to stop distributing it. He did. Mr. Chen then devised a noninvasive “patch” on the program — a separate piece of software — that would run concurrently with QQ on a user’s computer and modify it as the two went humming along. In 2003, he resumed offering Coral QQ.

In 2006, as it became increasingly apparent that Coral QQ was only growing in popularity, Tencent filed a 500,000 yuan ($68,000) lawsuit alleging copyright infringement against Mr. Chen and won a judgment for 100,000 yuan, which Mr. Chen paid. In early August, Tencent complained to the police in Shenzhen, where it has its headquarters, and on Aug. 16 Mr. Chen was detained. Tencent said Mr. Chen was “making illegal profits and infringing on Tencent’s copyright.”

I’m not sure I’m reading this right, but it sounds like at one point he was distributing a modified version of the QQ client. That’s a plain case of copyright infringement and so Tencent was well within their rights to object to that. However, it sounds like more recently he’s been writing independently-created code that modifies the QQ application. While the exact legal arguments would depend on the details of what it’s doing, this would generally not be considered copyright infringement in the United States.

The Sklyarov arrest did a great deal of good in terms of highlighting the problems with the DMCA and galvanizing the geek community. I engaged in my first anti-DMCA activism the week after his arrest, when I attended a protest at the Minneapolis courthouse. If Shoufu’s actions are indeed as innocuous as Sklyarov’s were, this arrest should increase awareness in China of the threats that overly-restrictive copyright law can pose to programmers’ freedom.

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