Creative Commons and Copyleft: Open-Source Licenses in China

Free open source software is highly popular in China. A recent report by the Chinese think tank China Academy for Information and Communication Technology (CAICT) states that in 2019, 87.4% of Chinese companies had already used open source technologies, and by now the figure is likely to be even higher.

Standardized licenses (public copyright licenses), which allow free distribution of an otherwise copyrighted work, are correspondingly widespread. Users may, depending on the specific license, not only copy or redistribute the content in any format or medium, but also edit it to mix, modify, and build upon it.

Still relatively rare are lawsuits involving Copyleft, a clause in open source copyright usage licenses that require the licensee to license any editing of the work, such as enhancement or modification, under the license of the original work. The Copyleft clause is intended to prevent modified versions of the work from being passed on with restrictions on use that the original does not have, and to prevent free works from becoming the source material for proprietary content.

Licensing litigation is likely to become more frequent in China. The first such lawsuit between two Chinese companies was decided in 2018 and involved a defense based on the copyleft mechanism of the GNU General Public License 3.0 (GPL 3.0). The court recognized copyright infringement because the relevant parts of the software used by the defendant were not subject to the GPL 3.0 and therefore could not be used freely. The judges emphasized that the existence of copyleft conditions must be decided in each individual case. However, the ruling shows that it is generally possible to enforce English-language licenses such as the GPL 3.0 in China.

Another sign that China is getting more involved with open-source licenses is the first widely known Chinese licensing movement, 996.icu, which opposes the common practice of exploiting developers. And it’s not just Chinese citizens who are getting more involved. We expect to see more Chinese-language open-source licenses soon, as the Chinese government has recognized the benefits of open-source software and technologies and is now encouraging the development of relevant Chinese-origin platforms – partly to mitigate dependence on foreign platforms like GitHub. The best known is Gitee, which was approved by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) in July 2020.

Picture: Gitee

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