Historical Research Project—Pirated DVDs in Mainland China—Oct. 4

History Research Project

“…… analytic attention is dominated by the media forms that generate the most money and are thus subject to the most intense accusations of piracy. Although important, this can often elide what it is that pirate infrastructures do.”

—— Brian Larkin.

Pirated DVDs Are Dead? Long Live the Piracy!

——Redefining Movie Piracy in today’s Mainland China

Recently, Chris Anderson published his hotly debated review —— “The Web is dead. Long live the Internet” on Wired[1], which is referring to one of the media currents that the Web browser is gradually losing its vitality and being supplanted by apps at an astonishing speed. Unsurprisingly, there are tons of furious netizens posting counterblows against his controversial prophecy online. This dispute reminds me of an analogous case: the unexpected decay in the popularity of pirated DVDs in China’s media market nowadays. In the following, this article would briefly examine the development of DVD piracy of foreign movies in the Mainland China’s marketplace from a historical point of view. I intend to take it as an illustrative case to scrutinize the heavy blow from the consciousness of social resistance striking at the long-established value of media copyrights in the age of media convergence.

Oh well, long story to tell……

1. The Emergence of DVD Piracy in Mainland China.

It is crucial to recall what happened right before pirated DVDs have come into being in China. Luckily, Chinese people had limited choices for foreign movie viewing: either to purchase illicit pirated VCDs/video cassettes, or just to stay uninformed. This was and remains a question of life or death for Chinese folks. The Chinese government has been harshly and consistently blamed for committing the crime of giving a blind eye to the nation-widely prevailing matter of media piracy in Mainland China for years. Like some social researchers criticize in their reports forthrightly, “… China is possibly the largest market in the world for pirated films. Organized crime in China has a long history and is frequently associated with corrupt officials in government and the military. Piracy operations in China also extend to the Chinese diaspora operating in other countries ……. High-profile cases offer evidence of Chinese gangs conducting piracy operations.”[2] Piracy, drawn into the unique context of Mainland China, is not merely a simple issue within the economic conversation; rather it comes down to a concern involved with a variety of complex matters implicating dominant ideology of the Chinese government and the Chinese spirit of revolt.

Although media piracy has always been consecrated to Chinese audiences; actually, when referring to DVD, few of Chinese people were going to associate it with piracy and copyright until the year of 1998.[3] When DVD version of pirated movies had just turned up on the black market in Mainland China, DVD-5 was the only format available at that time, which brought with a lousily indistinct image and rough sound in any movie it carried. In spite of this, its audiovisual performance was still far better than what pirated VCDs used to provide for viewers, not to mention the cheaper price for its relatively higher capacity of storage. Within expectation, after a short period of time, pirated DVDs, taking the place of other forms of media piracy, completely swept the whole country at the beginning of the new Millennium.

Undoubtedly, compared with previous devices for media storage, DVD possesses myriad advantages. I will only name a few in the following.

Firstly, the price of DVD piracy was the key to its used-to-be prevalence in China. The extraordinarily high price of movie ticket has been nagging both filmmaking corporations and moviegoers ceaselessly in Mainland China since 1985. Having nothing alike in Western countries, where people consider movie-going as a common means of mass entertainment, in most major cities of China, the majority of Chinese citizens have no financial ability to go to theatre on a regular basis. People cannot afford it. One ticket for an American blockbuster in ordinary movie theatres in Beijing, for example, will cost at least one twentieth of the per capita monthly income.[4] This awkward situation in China has changed watching movie in theatre into a particular high-brow and upscale activity. Some film distribution companies in China decided to raise ticket price as high as possibly in the mid of 1990s. They believed that anyhow there would be no more audiences going to theatre in the near future, and those, who would like to purchase a movie ticket for the moment, were all upper-class wealthy people who wouldn’t mind paying a higher price. A recent study in 2010 shows that ordinary Chinese only go to the cinema once every five years.[5] The nonstop rise in the ticket price for the last 20 years has not only kept blocking Chinese audiences out of the theatre but also become one major impetus behind the prosperity of movie piracy in China.

The price of a single-sided pirated DVD-5 carrying with one movie in Beijing was only $1 to $1.5 in 2003.[6] In 2010, people could pay less than $1 for a series of 007 or Rambo movies on a compressed DVD-9 on the sidewalks of Shanghai.[7] Back to the 1990s and the early 2000s, those pirated movies on DVDs were usually recorded by household handheld camera in the dark when they were theatrically exhibited. Usually, these movies were shaky video recordings, completing with scratchy audio and shots of the backs of viewers’ heads.[8] However, most of American movie lovers in China wouldn’t care the horrible effect presented by pirated DVDs that much, as long as they could spend much less on a movie they were dying to watch for such a long time. After its rapid spread in the last 10 years, the total sale of pirated DVDs in 2009, conservatively estimated, was more than $5.84 billion in Mainland China.[9]

A pirated DVD of The Incredibles was being sold on the street in Mainland China in 2004, right after the movie’s premiere in North America. However, the quality of this version, I assume, wouldn’t be too good, as it was highly possibly the theatrically taped one (‘Qian-Ban’ in Chinese) rather than cloned directly from the original film or its DVDs. (Photo from Baidu.com.)

Also, compared with previous forms of media for storage, such as video cassette or VCD, DVD format itself holds a variety of advanced technological improvements, including higher capacity of storing, small-sized external shape, high portability, high-resolution video, high-fidelity audio, and easy-to-use and low-cost device for burning, reading and rewriting.[10] Thanks to these unique features, a DVD could be purchased at an ultra-low price without any difficulty. Besides, when watching a movie on DVD, audiences are guaranteed a better chance to take the full control of audiovisuality in the viewing process. On the contrary, it’s hard for moviegoers in theatre to stop, to reverse, to fast forward, or to make any change to the film streaming at any time they prefer, or to watch it at any place they like. The entire process of movie viewing in theatre is lack of the sense of empowerment which audiences could easily attain during watching DVDs. Moreover, many legit DVDs prevent skipping past or fast-forwarding in order to force consumers to watch some specific parts of the content.[11] This coercive feature of legit DVDs is extremely disturbing for viewers who are inclined to have multiple viewing experiences. Like Larkin contends, “when films were shown once a week on television or periodically at the cinema, there could be a general influence but not the close textual control needed for precise copying: pausing, rewinding, examining costumes and camera techniques, and transcribing plot sequences. …Piracy allows the breaking down of a narrative into component parts and close attention to detail that constitutes this copy culture and on which the development of aesthetic forms.”[12] Especially for those viewers who have already watched the movie once, if they plan to enjoy it again, then pirated DVDs are always a better choice for them than legit DVDs or going to theatre for the second time from both economical and practical point of view.

Furthermore, when it comes to the specific cultural environment in Mainland China, pirated version of all the scarce movies is almost the only option for film buffs, movie enthusiasts, and even film experts. It was in the year of 1995 that the Chinese government started to allow foreign movies to be shown to Chinese audiences. Between 1995 to 2001, there were only 10 foreign movies per year screened in Mainland theaters. Under the political and economic pressures from WTO, the Chinese government has permitted 20 imported movies for theatrical exhibition every year in Mainland since 2002.[13] Whereas, there have already been at least 14 authorized universities having majors in filmmaking and/or film theories in Mainland China since 1990,[14] which means there were tens of thousands of film students, film professors, film makers, and film scholars existent. Lots of these film experts are specialized in foreign movies, especially in American and European cinema studies. As far as I know, only one film institution in Mainland China has its own media collection of foreign cinema in the 1990s. Before 1995, nothing concreted for them to watch or to learn if without any pirated foreign movies obtainable in China. Additionally, since there is no motion picture rating system in China,[15] every imported film has to be viewed and edited by the censor before public screening. And all the controversial parts pertaining to sensitive political, economic, and cultural topics in these movies will be removed with no negotiation. The strict censorship in China is awfully unfavorable for people who take these intact media materials as indispensable for further professional inquiry. Usually art films from European countries with any ideologically permissive content will be rejected for screening directly. Thus, people fond of French avant-garde film, for instance, have no other choice but to purchase pirated movies on the street corners. This probably could explain why the most prosperous markets for pirated media are so close to these prestigious Film Academies in Beijing.

At times, in some places, compliance with the law doesn’t necessarily mean the first-rate way out. Almost all the internationally released foreign films are freely available in both Chinese and English language versions through the counterfeit trade in DVDs nowadays.[16] Owing to today’s highly developed technologies which help people easily crack the regional codes on legal DVDs, most of the high-quality pirated DVDs would show up on the street in Mainland China shortly after the release of the original DVDs in North America. Chinese audiences at least don’t need to wait for years for their desired movies. They have time to kill, and they have got pirated DVDs. It should be a more harmonious society in this way. Wouldn’t it be nice?

A pirated DVD copy of the film The Matrix Reloaded that appeared just as the movie was opening in theaters in Guangzhou in the August of 2003. (From NY Times, Tuesday, Aug 19, 2003, Page 16.)

2. Turning Point.

Piracy in some countries is a radical way to acquire information. Especially when referring to some undeveloped or developing nonwestern countries, media piracy is oxygen. Larkin describes piracy in Nigeria in this way, “the array of global media is only available through the mechanism of piracy; piracy is thus the default infrastructure through which nearly all foreign media flow.”[17] In the similar manner in Mainland China, piracy, as an effective information runway, leads people to the four corners of this world. Along with the coming of new media age, the Internet brings a new wave of piracy upheaval——online file-sharing.

It was in 2005 that the peer-to-peer (P2P) systems were turning into prevalence in Mainland China. Although Napster was released in 1999, few Chinese people got a chance to have a tryout back then. After the year of 2000, with the boom of broadband Internet in China, people began to seek for more convenient channels to obtain media materials online. In only 5 years later, the amount of movies Mainland netizens downloaded over the Internet achieved 400,000-600,000 per year. According to a research report done in 2005, only one eighth of Mainland college students said they would be willing to watch a movie in theatre. Most of young people between 18 to 24 years old, who were supposed to be target audiences for movie distribution in Mainland China, chose to get access to movies online for free.[18] BTChina and VeryCD have become the most thriving online file-sharing websites in China for users of BitTorrent and eMule since 2005. Since then, P2P has begun to dominate the way DVD piracy paved.

Mainland people find themselves a new freeway to breath. By this, I mean, FREE way. More than just with regard to money, online file-sharing is not limited by any boundary of locality, time zone, language, race, nationality, and culture. It is literally free to everything. All the producing processes of online piracy in Mainland China, like recording, translating, editing, uploading, sharing, and introducing, are completely fulfilled voluntarily in a timely manner. Chinese netizens could find a variety of un-translated versions of the American movies available for downloading on P2P websites in the same month after its premiere in other regions. And then, closed-captioned scripts in English and/or Chinese will also appear online for free downloading soon after. During an interview with NY Times, one of the most well-known websites for subtitle translation of P2P media contents, YYeTs.net, maintained that their translation groups were nonprofit organization and all the members in the crew were volunteers. “What we do is a kind of bridge for two different cultures.” One of its translators told the reporter during the interview.[19]

Online file-sharing is a new definition of freedom. It offers human being a new channel to communicate, to exchange, to express, and to reproduce, without any kind of limitation. More importantly, it sets piracy free. It forms a new piracy system that “create(s) and recreate(s) conditions for everyday urban life. Like all new technologies, they organize sensory perception, provide new relationships between people and things, and give rise to different forms of affectivity, sociability, and leisure. …By expanding the range of media available and the speed with which they circulate, piracy has also expanded the possibility for cultural imagining, the modes of affect that accompany those imaginings, and new aesthetic forms that emerge out of them. In this sense, piracy is not just destructive but generative.”[20] Movie fandom, and convergent and participatory culture were emerging on the Chinese websites simultaneously. Online piracy rocks Chinese people’s world.

Mainland China already possessed an online population of 222.4 million people in 2008, 65.8% of which participated in online illegal file-sharing.[21] The most influential BitTorrent site of Mainland China, BTChina, had 80,000 daily users in 2009. Downloading has become so popular (in Mainland China), that it’s even cutting into the profits of vendors who sell pirated DVDs. People could find an entire season of ABC program Lost for less than $1 in Shanghai’s piracy market in 2008; however the business was not so good. There was no reason for audiences to pay that much.[22] With online piracy, there would be no point to pay at all.

It would be over with pirated DVDs soon. I thought.

3. Revitalization.

In 2009, the total amount of eMule users in Mainland China ranked the fourth all over the world, and the number in Taiwan also accounted for 1.42% of the total population of eMule users around the world.[23] These data indicate that at least 8% of eMule users in this world are native Chinese speakers, who have no trouble pouring and obtaining information freely online beyond regional borders. Before long, the Chinese government found itself in an embarrassing situation in this open atmosphere created by online piracy. The online filter for media content is more concerned with political taboos, rather than the infringement of intellectual copyrights. Many Chinese people seem resolved to political censorship. But, they have gotten used to the freedom to get the entertainment they want online.[24] Under a severe political clampdown from western countries, the State Administration of Radio Film and Television in Mainland China cracked down on BTChina, and shut down VeryCD temporarily for lack of legal license to distribute media files in the December of 2009.[25] The most renowned movie fan-sites, movie translation and downloading sites, and online streaming sites were all automatically suspending themselves for the following several weeks instantly after this sanction.

In a research done in one week after the crackdown on the market of pirated DVDs in Guangzhou, the price of pirated DVDs raised nearly 10% in the same week. And according to the interviews in several popular computer markets in Beijing, reports showed that the sale of DVD players had a more significant increase than before the crackdown in 2009.[26]

So, piracy will be gone forever in front of hegemonic banning? Or pirated DVDs are back now?

4. Sign of Imminent Death?

Piracies “generate social action and aesthetic forms and to examine aspects of what they do in societies rather than whether they are legal or not. In many parts of the world, media piracy is not a pathology of the circulation of media forms but, rather, its prerequisite. It is the means by which media—usually foreign—are made available and it provides the technological constraints governing how other non-pirate media are reproduced, disseminated, and consumed.”[27] Obviously, movie piracy in China didn’t and won’t disappear, provided the Chinese government is still implementing and mandating its extensive censorship on this land. The Chinese fan groups of foreign movies, making use of digital technologies and convergent media, have been bringing their intelligence into full play to break the block of culture as well as to disseminate their own knowledge and beliefs—this is a war regarding culture, knowledge, and information. Copyright in this battle becomes the biggest barrier to equality and democracy. Politics and economics matter less when it comes to the freedom of mind and heart.

On the one hand, DVD piracy doesn’t lead to a dead-end, but rather elevates itself to a higher cultural level——Cinema Collection. Although DVD itself is lack of durability, flexible accessibility, version diversity, boundless and timeless possibilities for circulation and distribution, etc., when compared with online media; high-quality pirated DVDs are increasingly dominant over the black market in Mainland China. These first-class pirated DVDs usually provide audiences with exceptional audiovisual performance for a slightly higher price. A great crowd of cinema fanatics are keen on purchase of this sort of DVD piracy for private collection. High-quality marks of DVD piracy “allow(ing) consumers to incorporate films into their home libraries, a process that provides collectors with the ability to position themselves within a wider taste culture” and guarantee “a certain type of engagement with movies, one characterized by discourses of cinematic knowledge or connoisseurship, in which the home viewer is treated as an expert—or potential expert—in films and film culture.”[28]

A screen grab from pirated DVD of Toy Story with HD studio-like visual performance.

Pictures of exquisitely made pirated DVDs of the entire series of 007 for sale on the Chinese online auction and shopping website. All the DVDs are high quality and copied from the original DVDs distributed in other regions. One set costs less than $100. (Pictures from taobao.com.)

Picture of fancy package of pirated DVDs in Mainland China. They are pirated DVDs of  Red Curtain Trilogy (By Baz Luhrmann), Schindler’s List, and the 25th anniversary version for Alien, Mummy. (Photos from Fan Sites and taobao.com)

A screen grab from a high-quality DVD-9 version of one pirated movie winning the Best European Picture Award in 2003. This is the Chinese advert introduction content for the synopsis and the reviews from film critics of this movie. Neither the original legal DVD nor film screened in theatre is carrying with this part. The pirated DVD offers thorough background information for many infatuated movies fans to enjoy.

A picture of a pile of simple-packaged DVDs sold on the streets in Mainland China in 2007. The audiovisual quality is not necessarily low, and some among these DVDs might be on DVD-9 format. But, in virtue of the rough packing and coarse translation, they are called Jian-Zhuang in Chinese and cost much less than the deluxe ones do. (Photo from news.sohu.com)

Pirated DVDs in China are far from being done. On the other hand, there are various alternative approaches to have access to movie piracy. Three months after the crackdown, all the online streaming websites and fan forums are already back on track. Even though a large portion of movie collection has been deleted for good from some P2P sites, the function of file-sharing, after a short time of recovery, works just fine. More pirated movies will be put into the stock of these websites. Sooner or later, these cultural bridges will be restored to their former prosperity. Foreign movies, subtitles, and spoiled information are now all accessible from private online file storage providers sprouting during this period of time. This is a benefit generated from the crackdown. People will create their devious route to give a counterattack against confinement. Piracy in some people’s minds is the most efficient manner to overcome censorship and to realize cultural democracy.

What if ……?

What if living an empty life without pirated DVDs in China? Can you imagine anything worse than being caught in a self-secluded small world and living out one’s days ignorantly? Like the idealistic solution to piracy somebody was daydreaming about, “digital piracy and fake products is a problem throughout the developing world but nowhere to the scale seen in China. The problem isn’t likely to be solved through diplomacy, litigation or law enforcement – business is forced to come up with creative solutions of its own.”[29] Yeah right. But, what kind of creative solutions civilians could put up by themselves to fight for their civil rights against dictatorial politics of their government? There is a Chinese saying goes as “for every measure from the top, a countermeasure at the bottom”. Facing up to monocracy, people know how to figure out their own cunning strategy. In a sense, piracy in China is no longer what some starchy academicians thought it purported to be.

Avatar premièred in Beijing on Dec. 31, 2009. Numerous Chinese audiences went to movie theatres attempting to enjoy an intriguing visual feast. And a large amount of them ended up with vomiting and dizziness there caused by wearing a pair of 3D glasses. This is called 3D syndrome. Just like one century ago, people got scared by a train moving towards them on the silver screen and fled in all directions. People in our age are still not used to the audiovisual revolution of 3D technology. What if we could watch 3D movies at home through online file-sharing or DVDs? I bet you would rather throw up in your own bathroom than sway and fall in a faint in the theatre, right? Plus, you don’t need to pay $25 for getting nauseated in public. You could just feel nausea for free in your own place. How great it is……

Here is another benefit from piracy: on occasion, piracy is the equivalent of privacy. I have never heard of any story talking about one single public large-scaled projection of adult movies in China or in Asia. (If anyone knows something like that, I really like to hear how it was going.) However, there are abundant pirated DVDs of American porn selling on the street in Beijing. Partly, it is because Mainland China is under the embargo on any kinds of erotic media materials to be produced and circulated. But, a more reasonable and thorough explanation here I believe should be some types of film are only appropriate for private viewing. It also happens when audiences prefer to watch movies privately for some reason. Like some beefcake feels embarrassed to cry in a crowded movie theatre when watching Titanic, so he chooses to purchase a DVD or downloads it to his computer from the Internet in order to enjoy it and weep alone. Under either condition, when there are no legit DVDs for sale, piracy is the only alternative left.

My point is, technologies are constantly evolving. The quintessence of piracy remains alive yet never stops changing. Instead of raping high profits as it used to be and was supposed to be, piracy evolves to be an effectual cultural tool for people living in some part of this world to challenge the information blackout on multiple affairs.

Sometimes, I just want to utter in an earsplitting and vehement voice:

Piracy? To die for!


[1] “The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet,” last modified August 17, 2010, http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/08/ff_webrip/all/1.

[2] Gregory F. Treverton et al., Film Piracy, Organized Crime,and Terrorism (RAND Corporation, 2009), 68.

[3] “Who made the Branded DVD Piracy?” last modified January 26, 2005, http://news.xinhuanet.com/fortune/2005-01/26/content_2509721.htm.

[4] “The Current Situation of Movie Theatre in China,” last modified August 24, 2010, http://news.163.com/10/0824/04/6EQT8QIQ00014AED.html.

[5] “The Current Situation of Movie Theatre in China.”

[6] “Very Guilty, Very Beauty?—— A Field Research on Pirated DVDs,” last modified March 12, 2004, http://www.xschina.org/show.php?id=393.

[7] “DVD Piracy in China – A Closer Look at Black Market Trade,” last modified April 24, 2008, http://www.audioholics.com/news/industry-news/dvd-piracy-china-black-market.

[8] “DVD Piracy in China – A Closer Look at Black Market Trade.”

[9] “The Sale in the Chinese Pirated Movie Market,” retrieved September 30, 2010, http://www.mtime.com/news/2010/06/17/1434426.html.

[10] “To the Movie Fans in Lishui in the Age of Post-VCD,” last modified March 29, 2004, http://bbs.inlishui.com/dispbbs.asp?boardid=12&Id=46073.

[11] “DVD,” Wikipedia, accessed September 30, 2010, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DVD.

[12] Brian Larkin, “Pirate Infrastructures,” in Structures of Participation in Digital Culture, ed. Joe Karaganis. (New York: social science research council, 2007), 83.

[13] “China Sinks Dead Man’s Chest,” last modified July 10, 2006, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2006/jul/10/newsl.

[14] “Information of Colleges and Majors,” accessed September 30, 2010, http://www.chinakaoyan.com/graduate/SpeForSchool/id/103.shtml.

[15] “Censorship in the People’s Republic of China,” Wikipedia, accessed October 1, 2010, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship_in_the_People%27s_Republic_of_China#Film

[16] “Regulators Now Spooked by Ghost Stories,” last modified February 14, 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/oddlyEnoughNews/idUSN1442888920080214?feedType=RSS&feedName=oddlyEnoughNews.

[17] Brian Larkin, “Pirate Infrastructures,” 78.

[18] “BT’s retirement Emule’s premiere, Angel or Demon in the Industry,” last modified June 16, 2005, http://tech.sina.com.cn/i/2005-06-16/2320638317.shtml.

[19] “Chinese Fans Following American TV Online—For Free,” last modified June 24, 2008, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91799790.

[20] Brian Larkin, “Pirate Infrastructures,” 78.

[21] “China Shutters BT Sites over Porn, Copyrighted Materials,” accessed October 1, 2010, http://www.zeropaid.com/news/87345/china-shutters-bittorrent-sites-over-porn-copyrighted-material/

[22] “Chinese Fans Following American TV Online—For Free.”

[23] “The Amount of Chinese Emule Users Ranks Top 4 in the World,” last modified April 19, 2010, http://www.cnbeta.com/articles/108985.htm.

[24] “Chinese Fans Following American TV Online—For Free.”

[25] “China Shuts Down File-Sharing Site,” last modified December 9, 2009, http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2009/12/09/china-file-sharing-website-censorship.html.

[26] “BT’s retirement Emule’s premiere, Angel or Demon in the Industry.”

[27] Brian Larkin, “Pirate Infrastructures,” 83.

[28] Chuck Tryon, Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence (New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2009), 20-21.

[29] “DVD Piracy in China – A Closer Look at Black Market Trade.”


Karaganis, Joe. “The Ecology of Control: Filters, Digital Rights Management, and Trusted Computing.” in Structures of Participation in Digital Culture, edited by Joe Karaganis, 256-280. New York: social science research council, 2007.

Larkin, Brian. “Pirate Infrastructures.” in Structures of Participation in Digital Culture, edited by Joe Karaganis, 74-84. New York: social science research council, 2007.

Treverton, Gregory F., and Carl Matthies, Karla J. Cunningham, Jeremiah Goulka, Greg Ridgeway, Anny Wong. Film Piracy, Organized Crime,and Terrorism. RAND Corporation, 2009.

Tryon, Chuck. Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence. New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Wired. “The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet.” last modified August 17, 2010. http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/08/ff_webrip/all/1.


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