An online library operated by Chinese search engine giant Baidu is drawing criticism that its becoming the next online hotbed for pirated works.
This week, a group of 40 Chinese writers released a letter condemning Baidu for allowing unauthorised copies of their works to be made available on the library site.
The letter claims that Baidu facilitated this piracy to attract more users. "Baidu has already degenerated into a company of thieves," the letter from the writers said.
Baidu Library allows users to upload documents that can then be viewed online for free. Over 20 million documents have been uploaded since the site's launch at the end of 2009. Baidu Library also features a store that is starting to sell books online.
Baidu has been committed to protecting intellectual property rights since the day it launched Baidu Library, it said. Authors and copyright holders can report illegal content with Baidu and see it deleted within 48 hours.
"To date we have deleted tens of thousands of infringing items uploaded by Baidu Library users," the company said in a statement.
Baidu is China's largest search engine with a 75 percent market share and has long been accused of supporting piracy through its site.
The company's MP3 search service has been the biggest target for years now, with record labels claiming that it links users to hundreds of thousands of illegal songs hosted on third-party sites. Two weeks ago, a US government report reiterated the accusation, naming Baidu as a "notorious market."
But the company's newer library platform is now drawing similar complaints, said Mark Natkin, managing director at Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting. The library is potentially affecting many copyright holders who want to prevent their works from being pirated on the site, he added.
Over the years, however, Baidu has managed to sidestep accusations it facilitates piracy, even as the company has faced lawsuits, experts say. "We have not seen any major victory for copyright holders," Natkin said. He added that he did not believe the recent accusations against Baidu Library would lead to any concrete changes with the platform.
Chinese Internet users have long been used to downloading music and ebooks for free, said Sun Peilin, an analyst with Beijing-based research firm Analysys International. But the complaints against Baidu will only continue unless the music and publishing industries can be placated in some way.
"Baidu has to find a way to maintain its advertising revenue, while also making sure the music and publishing industries gets their share as well, because users will not pay for this content," he said.
Baidu would not comment on the accusations it facilitates illegal music downloads. But the company has said in previous years it is in discussion with music industry labels to resolve longstanding differences.