Palace intrigue

A dispute over plagiarism only serves to boost a drama’s ratings


Flower girl: Yuan Shanshan

She’s called “Taiwan’s queen of romance” and is a bestselling author. Qiong Yao, now 76, has sold millions of books – mostly in the 1980s and 1990s – portraying women as hopeless romantics. So hopeless, in fact, that many of them ignore more practical considerations like class, wealth and even marital status (many of her heroines get involved with married men).

But over the years Qiong’s readers have grown up, becoming less enchanted with her out-of-this world romances. That’s meant that those TV series based on her books have lost out to beautifully packaged South Korean dramas.

But last month Qiong made headlines again by publishing a letter on her weibo account accusing screenwriter Yu Zheng of plagiarising her work. She says that Yu, the scriptwriter for Hunan Satellite TV’s latest hit The Palace: The Lost Daughter, copied her novel Plum Blossom Scar, which was made into a TV series of the same name in 1992.

In a lengthy note addressed to China’s media regulators, Qiong listed at least five major similarities between the characters and the plot of the Hunan TV drama series and her own Plum Blossom Scar. Last week she took the matter a step further by suing the scriptwriter in a mainland Chinese court.

Yu says that he is stunned and confused by the allegations and that any similarities between the two dramas were “unintentional coincidences”. But he added that it’s natural that people would seek to emulate Qiong, as she is the originator of Chinese romance dramas.

The flattery didn’t seem to work. Qiong was so furious that she became ill, her daughter says. She has also been unable to work, which has led to delays in another adaptation of Plum Blossom Scar, for which she has already completed 25 episodes. Qiong asked her supporters to boycott the Hunan TV show in protest at Yu’s lack of respect for copyright.

Many netizens have voiced their support for the novelist. “Support Auntie Qiong Yao! We hope that the rule of law will give it a fair verdict. And I hope that Auntie will stay healthy and continue to write stories that are moving,” one wrote.

Another scriptwriter Li Yaling, who has worked with Yu previously, added fuel to the fire by posting on her weibo that Yu once claimed that his dramas couldn’t be considered plagiarism as long as the copied portion doesn’t exceed 20% of the work (it should be noted that Li herself has been accused of plagiarism in the past too).

Others came to Yu’s defence. “There are so many TV dramas every year and so it is unavoidable that some plot lines are similar,” said Lu Yi, the lead actor on The Palace: The Lost Daughter.

Industry observers say it is going to be very difficult for Qiong to prove plagiarism. That’s because the current laws recognise plagiarism through similarity in wording, not in plots.

“Only when a TV screenplay features similarities in storylines, backgrounds and character relations and is presented in the same wording as the original one, could it be identified as plagiarism and can violators be held legally responsible. Otherwise, it’s hard to draw a conclusion for the court,” says Yu Guofu, a Beijing lawyer specialising in intellectual property rights.

And besides, it’s well-known that ‘emulation’ is commonplace among Chinese screenwriters, says Hainan Daily. The difference is that Yu is one of the most famous screenwriters in the country, so public scrutiny of the case is greater.

China produced 17,000 TV series throughout 2012, an increase of 13.8% compared to 2011, ranking it first globally in quantity of TV drama production. But scriptwriters are underappreciated and poorly paid, says the People’s Daily. Most of them make only a few thousand yuan a month working for more established writers. Small wonder, then, that some resort to copying.

“The debate between Qiong and Yu reflects the reality in the industry that TV producers tend to take shortcuts by over-borrowing scripts or plots to make sensational but seemingly familiar dramas, due to the lack of strong supervision and copyright protection,” Wang Hailin, vice-chairman of the Chinese Society of Film Literature, told the China Daily.

Yu himself hasn’t struggled for an income. Reportedly he earned Rmb24 million ($3.85 million) between 2008 and 2013.

According to Gao Mantang, who is the highest paid screenwriter in China, audiences are tired of poorly-written dramas and crave more substantial entertainment. “[At present,] the popularity of some terrible stories warns us the number of good stories is too few. I believe, in the next few years, Chinese TV dramas will rise to new heights in terms of quality,” says Gao.

Hunan Satellite TV should also thank Qiong for her public rebuking of Yu. Before her accusations surfaced, ratings for The Palace: The Lost Daughter, which features starlet Yuan Shanshan, were underwhelming. But it quickly became the most-watched show on the network once the spat between the two writers became headline news in late April.

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