China’s top photo agency, Visual China Group, apologized and shut down its website Friday after falsely claiming copyright to the first-ever image of a black hole captured by the Event Horizon Telescope this week.
The Visual China Group (VCG), partnered with the U.S. photo agency Getty Images and owning over 40 million editorial images and 1.25 million videos, said in a post on China’s Twitter equivalent Weibo Thursday that it had been contacted by China’s cybersecurity agency for selling images tagged with “sensitive and harmful information.”
The images in question included the viral photo of a black hole captured this week, images of the Chinese national flag, and logos of Chinese firms such as Baidu, China’s equivalent of Google. VCG added that the incident revealed weaknesses within the company’s management and confirmed they would cooperate with authorities to investigate the incident.
“We failed to do our due diligence in assessment, leading to the appearance of substandard content,” it said. “The company is working proactively and carefully for a rectification. We hope that we will resume our service soon.” According to the Japan Times, the topic “Visual China apologizes” was one of the most-read items on the Weibo platform on Friday, with over 250 million views.
The incident may come as an embarrassment to authorities in Beijing, who have pledged to crack down on the country’s rampant intellectual property theft. Numerous global research studies have found China to be the world’s top violator of such property rights, with one study in 2017 estimating that the U.S. economy loses up to $150 billion a year because of Chinese intellectual property theft.
“IP theft by thousands of Chinese actors continues to be rampant, and the United States constantly buys its own and other states’ inventions from Chinese infringers,” the Commission on the Theft of U.S. Intellectual Property said in their 2017 report. “China is deeply committed to industrial policies that include maximizing the acquisition of foreign technology and information, policies that have contributed to greater IP theft.”
Elliot Papageorgiou, head of the Shanghai-based Intellectual Property practice at the law firm Clyde & Co., told Reuters the company’s use of the black hole image was embarrassing due to its widespread popularity. “It comes at an inconvenient time because China is trying hard to get recognition for some positive steps it is taking to protect intellectual property,” he told the agency.