By placing Baidu on its “notorious markets” list for providing links to unauthorised MP3 files, the US Trade Representative has reopened an unwelcome issue for the Chinese search champion.
E-commerce site Alibaba, The Pirate Bay, and clones of Russia’s now-closed Allofmp3 are also on the list, which names and shames alleged pirates with the aim of encouraging local authorities to take action (though it is also a handy guide for those who wish to buy counterfeit goods).
It is telling that while Alibaba acknowledged the move and said it was working “with brand owners in protecting their intellectual property rights,” the Baidu isn’t touching it.
Early last year Baidu won a copyright infringement case filed in Beijing by the global music group IFPI on behalf of the big four labels – reportedly because the actual hosts of the MP3 files could not be identified.
However, Yahoo Music China, which had also provided deep links to MP3 files, lost a similar case in 2007.
While it is unfair to expect a search engine to be responsible for the content that it links to, there are two points to made.
First, Baidu is more than just a passive provider of search results – it has built a dedicated search page that catalogues and sorts MP3 files and hosts banner ads. It is hard to see how it can argue that it was a neutral third party.
Second, it is a competitive advantage over foreign search rivals. For legal and political reasons, it’s not a business that Bing and Google can get into.
Baidu clearly values its MP3 business. But as one of China’s top global brands, it also values its international reputation. We'll see how long the former remains more important.