Cracking Down On Chinese Karaoke

Recording companies including Time Warner and EMI are launching a campaign to force thousands of Chinese karaoke bars to start paying for the tunes their patrons croon to, a lawyer for the companies said Wednesday.

The move by 49 foreign and Chinese firms marks the start of a new battle over rampant piracy in China of movies, designer fashions and other intellectual property.

Lawyers have sent letters to "several thousand" karaoke parlors throughout China demanding they pay copyright fees, said Guo Chunfei of the Beijing Tianwei Law Firm.

"As far as I know, no karaoke parlor here in China pays fees. That's why it is urgent to resolve this," Guo said. She said the companies hope to reach agreements without going to court.

Karaoke is hugely popular in China, where bars, hotels, restaurants and some homes are equipped with karaoke rooms. In bigger cities, karaoke parlors are neon-lit, multistory entertainment palaces with bars, private lounges and space for hundreds of patrons. Karaoke bars can be found in the tiniest provincial towns.

The music often comes from illegally duplicated recordings, with no fees paid to copyright holders.

In most countries, licensing organizations collect fees from karaoke operators or companies that manufacture music discs.

In the United States, karaoke bars are supposed to get a license from groups like the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, said Jim Steinblatt, an ASCAP spokesman. The license is an all-in-one agreement that gives companies permission to use all of ASCAP's properties.

Guo said the scale of the recording companies' effort to secure copyright fees in China is so huge that her firm has retained 40 other Chinese firms to help pursue violators.

Companies involved in the campaign range from global giants Universal, Time Warner and EMI to Hong Kong's Emperor Entertainment Group and smaller Chinese firms, Guo said.

The lawyer said she didn't know how much money would be involved.

But the official Xinhua News Agency, citing an unnamed industry consultant, said fees would vary by the size of the karaoke bar and could run as high as $12,000.

That would mean the total for overdue copyright fees could run into the tens of millions of dollars.

Despite repeated promises by the government to crack down, China's piracy industry continues to copy everything from Ralph Lauren shirts to Microsoft software. Copies of new Hollywood movies are readily available for as little as 50 cents on the streets of Beijing.

International trade groups say Chinese piracy costs Western companies an estimated $16 billion in lost sales each year.

A spokesman for the Taiwan-based Cashbox Karaoke Group, which operates a well-known chain of karaoke bars in China, said it already was paying music fees through the China Music Copyright Association.

"We heard about the demand by the law firms," spokesman Zhou Gang said by telephone from Taipei. "But we haven't received any letters."

By Joe McDonald