China’s biggest academic database faces anti-monopoly probe

Law experts call for broader effort to improve authors’ copyright interests

May 13, 2022
China police
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China’s market regulator has announced an antitrust probe into the country’s largest academic database, after a recent boycott.

The State Administration for Market Regulation of China said on its website that it had launched an antitrust investigation into China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) based on “an initial inspection”. The body did not release further details of the case.

Shi Jianzhong, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law and member of the expert advisory group of the Anti-Monopoly Committee of the State Council, told national media on the same day that the investigation was “timely and necessary”, as the database has set up “unfair terms and conditions” in its service agreement, and its price of purchasing academic documents and selling digital knowledge products “was almost unconstrained from market competition”.

The announcement came after the heated debates over the fee model of the database last month, when several institutes under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) ceased their subscription to CNKI. It was reported that CAS paid ¥10 million (£1.2 million) for the service in 2021.

Liu Deliang, a law professor at Beijing Normal University and dean of Asia-Pacific Institute for Cyber-law Studies, told Times Higher Education that the news was “not surprising”. “CNKI has long been gaining benefits of communication of academic resources by abusing its dominant position, as it collects academic resources based on agreements with publishers without consenting or paying individual copyright owners,” Professor Liu said: “As for its individual and institutional subscribers, they have no bargaining power against the high prices because CNKI’s dominant market share.”

Back in January, the database was under huge public criticism for a high-profile case when a retired professor won a copyright lawsuit against it, which led to a compensation of ¥700,000 (£82,000).

Professor Liu pointed out that the government has been taking actions against monopolies in the internet industry and, while the original positioning of CNKI was to be the infrastructure for knowledge sharing, it should play an important role in public-purpose knowledge and information communication.

“It is vital to maximise the efficiency of knowledge sharing. If [CNKI’s model] hinders knowledge re-usage and re-communication, it is not serving the purpose of developing a strong country by promoting knowledge and technology,” Professor Liu said.

Ge Chen, assistant professor at Durham Law School and associate at the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Law at the University of Cambridge, described the case as a “lucky hit”. “Technically, while anti-trust law caught the biggest copyright infringer, it is also a failure of China’s copyright law itself,” he said.

Dr Chen explained that although digital copyright was codified in China’s Copyright Act after its first amendment in 2001, it was not defined until China’s state council issued a new copyright regulation in 2006.

“Chinese courts have not been able to produce a powerful judgment despite sporadic yet continuous copyright lawsuits against the CNKI. A major reason was that the China’s Supreme People’s Court failed to clarify the issue of digital copyright,” he said.

Dr Chen added that another reason was that Chinese intellectuals have not developed a commercial consciousness of protecting their intellectual works. “Launching a copyright lawsuit is not worth it, they would think. Instead, publication matters.”

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