Beatrix Potter court victory deals blow to China's publishing pirates

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The Independent Online

The landmark judgment in favour of Frederick Warne and Co, a subsidiary of Penguin Books, is subject to appeal, but it is one of the few occasions when a Chinese court has found in favour of a foreign company. The decision comes as China's booming publishing industry is under increasing pressure to clamp down on book piracy.

For many foreign companies it is still a losing battle. Just one week after the publication in July of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a pirate Chinese-language version was widely available in Beijing for 20 yuan (£1.50). It was missing crucial sections, but for the legions of Potter fans in China it was still preferable to waiting until 15 October, when the official version comes out.

So popular is the boy wizard in China that in 2002 a fake Harry Potter novel was published by the Bashu publishing house in Chengdu in western China. Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-up-to-Dragon, which was a verbatim translation of JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit with Harry and friends added to the story, sold thousands of copies before JK Rowling's publishers stopped it.

Chinese Potter fans are also prone to posting their own translations of the books on line. Fears over internet piracy prompted Rowling to make all six Potter books available for audio downloading last week.

Raymond Moroney of Rouse and Co International, the legal firm representing Beatrix Potter's publishers, said their success would "give more confidence" to foreign rights owners. "It shows the courts here do not necessarily differentiate between domestic and foreign companies when administering justice," he said.

Local publishers also suffer rip-offs. The most pirated book is the Chinese dictionary. As for plagiarism, Guo Jingming, whose novel City of Fantasy sold 1.5 million copies, was fined £13,000 last December for lifting the plot and major characters of his book Falling Blossoms in Romantic Dreams from another Chinese novel.

Censorship helps to drive piracy too. All books published in China have to pass the government censors, and those that contain graphic sex scenes or are considered politically suspect are swiftly banned, allowing the pirates to market their versions all the more easily.

But as China is the world's fastest-growing book market, with sales increasing by £160m a year, foreign publishers continue to dip their toes into the murky Chinese market.