Facing Plagiarism Scandal, This Chinese Sitcom Reveals Widespread Problem

Chinese sitcom iPartment (source: iQIYI)

The writers for the Chinese situational comedy iPartment are once again accused of plagiarizing a storyline, in the show’s Season 5 released this month. The show faced a similar plagiarism controversy eight years ago.

In response to the latest controversy, the iPartment production team apologized and reworked the show to change the plot. “We immediately conducted an internal review and confirmed the error due to a lack of supervision. We sincerely apologize for the matter,” the producers said in a statement.

The statement also apologized to Chinese vlogger “Old Tomato”, who accused the iPartment production team of plagiarizing his work.

A number of reviews have called out the Chinese situational comedy as a frequent plagiarizer. Perhaps as a result, iPartment Season 5 has received rating lower ratings than previous seasons. Season 5 now has a 4.9/10 rating on Douban, with a number of one-star reviews.

On Bilibili, a number of video producers have also raised the issue of iPartment’s plagiarism — not only in the latest season, but also in previous seasons. The situational comedy has been accused of copying storylines from well-known shows such as Friends, Big Bang Theory, and How I Met Your Mother.

How I Met Your Mother (source: Ron P. Jaffe/ Fox)

An earlier iPartment’s plagiarism controversy was reported in 2012, when the show was accused of stealing storylines from US sitcoms. The show production team denied plagiarizing American shows, saying, “Comedies have stereotypes, like the handsome man, the gorgeous woman, the cheap man and so on. They have that in many comedies. Our creation is not plagiarism, but more of a homage to the American sitcom.”

While the sitcom’s fans are defending the show, the declining viewership rates and recent major changes in the cast may imply that the show is coming to its end. The plagiarism accusations are likely to put the struggling show into a more difficult situation.

Plagiarism has been a long-standing issue damaging Chinese TV shows. According to a report from China Youth Daily in 2015, more than 75% of Chinese TV viewers believe that there are ongoing issues with plagiarism. When it comes to the primary factors that led to plagiarism in China, about 50% of the interviewees suggest that the lack of intellectual property protections nurtures plagiarism in TV shows.

It is clear that a number of viewers are aware of plagiarism, but shows accused of stealing storylines can still make a profit and win a substantial amount of air time on TV, online platforms, and on social media. It becomes commercially viable for show production teams to survive, and sometimes thrive, after they are accused of plagiarism. The economic incentives unfortunately put Chinese TV shows in a toxic environment. The lack of economic penalties makes it difficult for viewers to punish plagiarism.

From a legal perspective, it is difficult to raise intellectual property rights cases in China. According to intellectual property rights expert Sun Liqing, while China has some of the best legislation regarding intellectual property rights, the costs of raising the matter in court are often unaffordable to victims of intellectual property theft.

“The cost of plagiarizing is low, ” Sun said, “but the cost of protecting your rights through legal means is high. Costs include lawyer fees, travel costs, and time costs. In addition, legal battles can take a long time, making it not worthwhile to fight those cases.”

Issues with compensation are another factor. According to Sun, Chinese courts do not punish parties that are involved in plagiarizing as harshly as courts in developed countries. This results in Chinese courts ordering lower damage payments, making it more difficult to protect intellectual property in China.

Intellectual property rights expert and researcher Xu Xinming suggested amending existing legislation on intellectual rights, making it financially viable for victims to seek compensation from plagiarizing offenders. Xu further suggested adding punitive damages to deter future plagiarism.

This advice and suggestions are from 2015. Yet plagiarism controversies in China did not stop. With few results achieved in intellectual rights protection, preserving original and creative ideas will be difficult for future practitioners in the content industry.