Weibo Crackdown Takes Aim at Web Scrapers, Not Users

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By John Butcher

Chinese microblogging site Weibo Corp.'s misunderstood attempt to thwart web scrapers from republishing users’ posts sparked fears of a copyright grab.

A recent notice from the company highlights the fierce competition in China’s social media landscape and a growing willingness by Weibo—China’s version of Twitter—to try and stop other services that take content or data without permission. Weibo was a Sina Corp spinoff, and Alibaba Corp. is a major shareholder.

Weibo alerted users Sept. 16 of a policy change prohibiting third parties from publishing content from users’ microblogs without the company’s written approval.

The notice—aimed at third parties and not the microblogging site’s users—doesn’t represent a major change in terms of Weibo’s control over copyrighted material, lawyers told Bloomberg BNA.

But many users misinterpreted the notice, thinking it blocked them from republishing content they created on other sites. Articles in the state-run China Daily newspaper said the notice had brought into question “whether the rule infringes on the intellectual property rights of the content generators.”

Weibo didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.

Taking Aim at Scrapers

The real purpose of Weibo’s action was to tackle web scrapers who take data or content for use elsewhere without permission, according to Joe Simone, director of SIPS, a China IP specialist with offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Weibo “is trying to create a better paper trail for denying scrapers,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

Weibo didn’t claim copyright of user content, just relaxed exclusive publishing rights by allowing users to give permission for third-party use of their content, Matthew Dresden, an attorney at Seattle-based international law firm Harris Bricken, told Bloomberg BNA.

“Weibo’s revision to the terms of service simply deleted the language about Weibo having exclusive rights, but kept the language about users needing Weibo’s permission for third-party use,” he said.

The revised terms of service also deleted previous language that said Weibo would keep any damages resulting from legal action taking on behalf of their users against infringers. “Really, both changes were just window dressing,” Dresden said.

Unlikely to Hit Use

Despite the controversy and discontent among some users, it is unlikely to impact the company, according to Luis Galn Lozano, chief executive officer of 2Open, an e-commerce advisory with offices in Shanghai and Madrid.

Inertia, and social media platforms’ leverage over individual users, mean discontent is unlikely to translate into anything more, Lozano said.

“This is the reality of the network economy and Sina Weibo—invested in by Alibaba—very well knows this market logic,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

Weibo’s action is one example of the aggressive approach companies are taking against web scraping.

In May 2016, review website Dianping successfully sued search engine Baidu for using its photos and user comments without permission. Baidu was ordered to remove the images and comments from its site and pay Dianping more than 3 million RMB ($454,980) in damages.

To contact the reporter on this story: John Butcher in Beijing, China at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mike Wilczek at mwilczek@bna.com

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