Friends: The Reunion, a special production of the American television sitcom Friends, has become the latest copyright battleground for China's video sites in a telltale sign of how competition and censorship are shaping how Chinese people access Western content.
Released this week, 17 years after the last episode aired, the special reunion episode was highly sought-after by Chinese video sites with iQiyi, Tencent Video, as well as Alibaba-backed Youku all receiving licences to broadcast a censored version that removed cameo appearances from Lady Gaga, Korean boy band BTS and Justin Bieber. Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post. The price for the licences has not been made public.
Airing on American broadcast television network NBC from 1994 to 2004, the television series was not available officially for most of China until Sohu.com won the rights in 2010. However, the proliferation of bootleg DVDs, and the unauthorised streaming on Chinese video sites, created a huge fan base among China's urban youth. Sohu's rights expired in 2018.
The three video sites had banked on the reunion of some of the world's most beloved characters to bring in additional subscribers and ad money but found that "uploaders" had rushed to republish the reunion on Bilibili, the video-sharing and streaming platform. Once regarded as a "good deed" on the Chinese internet, the practice is now unacceptable for sites that actually paid to air the show.
The official broadcast rights holders issued a joint statement of Friday, alleging that Bilibili had intentionally provided a platform for pirated versions of the Friends reunion special, condemning the "disrespect of intellectual property rights, open piracy and disruption of online video broadcasting order".
Bilibili has not yet issued an official response, but a search for Friends on Friday generated very few results as the video platform has taken down almost all user-generated Friends content, except for one video featuring the opening song I'll Be There For You by The Rembrandts.
A representative from Bilibili told the Post in a statement that the full Friends drama will be available on the platform, along with Sohu and the current rights holders, by the second half of the year, without commenting on the copyright accusation.
Before removing the videos, Bilibili had hosted not only highlights from the reunion special but also videos of Lady Gaga singing "Smelly Cat" with Lisa Kudrow, and Justin Bieber in Ross Geller's Spudnik potato costume from a Halloween episode, all censored in the official version for the Chinese audience.
The special Friends episode was widely welcomed by Chinese fans with the topic "Friends reunion" accumulating 200 million hits by Saturday on Weibo, China's Twitter-like social platform.
"Only a few minutes into the show, I teared up," one user commented on Weibo. "I have rewatched the show numerous times, no other show will top this."
Samantha Zeng, a 29-year-old in Beijing, wanted to watch the reunion on Bilibili, only to find that it was gone, so she had to turn to Youku to which she paid a subscription.
"I was upset because I wanted to watch the show with the Bilibili's bullet comments (one-line viewer comments that float directly above a video)," she said.
But Zeng said she still enjoyed the episode even without them.
"I was laughing and crying at the same time," she said.
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