Visual China Group Under Fire for Claiming to Own Copyrights to Black Hole Image, National Flag, and Practically Everything

First published

The Visual China Group’s website has been temporarily shut down after controversy over the company claiming the copyrights of the black hole image and the Chinese national flag in its library of stock photos and illustrations. The question “Have you been watermarked by the Visual China Group yet?” has become a hot topic on Weibo.

The Beijing-based photo and media agency Visual China Group (视觉中国) is under fire for claiming they own the copyright in China of the first-ever supermassive black hole photo that has been making international headlines this week.

Screenshots from the Chinese company’s website showed that the image, that was captured by the telescope network of Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) through the collective efforts of 200 astronomers around the world, was claimed to belong to the Visual China Group and that it could only be used by others after purchasing copyright for it.

Visual China Group is also dubbed the “Getty of China” by some English-language media. Getty is a leading American supplier of stock images and photography. Noteworthy is that the Weibo page of Visual China Group also has the url “www.weibo.com/gettyimages.”

According to Business Times, the image’s original copyright belongs to European Southern Observatory (ESO) and is licensed under a Creative Commons license, which means it may be used on a non-exclusive basis to be reproduced without fee if the credit is clear and visible.

Screenshots of a chat conversation with the Visual China Group are making its rounds on Chinese social media, in which a representative of the company suggests the black hole image belongs to them and can only be used after fees are paid.

On Friday, April 12, various Chinese media reported that the Visual China Group’s website was temporarily shut down after receiving orders from the Tianjin branch of China’s internet watchdog (天津市互联网信息办公室) on Thursday night to rectify its online library.

The controversy over Visual China Group grew bigger when it was discovered that China’s national flag, emblem, Mao’s portrait, and many other images were also watermarked by the company. The Weibo account of China’s Communist Youth League (@共青团中央) was one of the groups calling the company out for this on April 11, writing: “Does the copyright of the national flag and national emblem also belong to your company, @VisualChina?”

The Communist Youth League’s post received more than 110000 comments and was shared over 91700 times at time of writing. Various companies, including Phoenix News, Ctrip, Haier, Xiaomi, and Suning, also joined the discussion in the Communist Youth League’s thread, wondering why their logos or images were also listed in the Visual China Group’s copyright database.

So many companies found their logos and images to be listed in the Visual China Group’s library, that the question “Have you been watermarked by the Visual China Group yet?” started making its rounds online, with many netizens joking that practically every image in China had been claimed by the company.

Companies such as China Merchants Bank joked around in the comment sections, wondering why their logo had not been watermarked by the company yet. Alipay also joined the discussion, saying: “Have we come too late?”

Digging up more dirt on the Visual China Group has almost become somewhat of an online challenge for some Chinese netizens over the past two days. One commenter pointed out that photos of Taipei were labeled as photos of the ‘capital’ on their site, triggering hundreds of reactions on the company’s political stance on the Taiwan issue.

By now, the Visual China Group has apologized on its official Weibo account, stating they would review their online database in accordance with relevant laws and regulations to avoid similar situations in the future.

It is not clear when the site will be back online.

By Manya Koetse and Miranda Barnes

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