Aaron Deng, the VP of Pathea Games, Chongqing-based developer of My Time at Portia, recently detailed his years-long odyssey to have pirated versions of their games removed from Taobao in an article on the Chinese website GameCores.
The company’s tribulations began in January 2018, when Portia was first released on Steam. After discovering pirated versions of the game were being sold on Taobao, Deng first tried contacting the sellers directly to ask them to remove the game. This tactic was met with mixed results—some merchants demanded Deng prove his identity; others implied they would take bribes; still others offered to split profits with him.
This approach having failed, Deng next went through Taobao’s official copyright claim system. While this process was arduous, Pathea Games finally won its appeals after one month of back-and-forth with Taobao. Portia was removed from the platform in August 2018. Deng and the rest of Pathea Games thought their piracy problems were finally over, but they were wrong.
In 2021, the team was ready to release a mobile version of My Time at Portia. Now, however, China was only authorizing limited amounts of game releases each year. Pathea Games decided to first release mobile versions of Portia overseas while they waited for authorization for a domestic release.
Once again, pirated Android and iOS versions sprang up on Taobao. Verily traumatized by his experiences in 2018, Deng this time sought outside help from a law firm to deal with the issue. To his dismay, however, he was told that due to Chinese law and the low price of the pirated game, the Taobao merchants would need to sell tens of thousands of copies of the game before they could take legal action.
Deng next contacted the Cyberspace Administration of China, who told him it was best to work with Taobao directly. Having already succeeded with Taobao’s copyright claim system before, he tried again. This time, however, Deng’s claims and appeals were shut down over and over with no reason given. All attempts to contact Taobao failed, and each appeal required an onerous process of proving copyright and personal idendity. Deng described the system as a “black box” that they could get no information out of, and noted at the irony that the unauthorized merchants did not have to jump through nearly as many hoops to sell the game illegally on Taobao.
The issue was only resolved after Deng made a post on Pathea Games’ official Wechat account detailing the difficulty of getting pirated versions of the game removed from Taobao and Taobao’s apparent lack of respect toward Chinese developers. After making this post, all copies of the game were manually removed from Taobao.
But Deng was not happy with this outcome. They had only succeeded because of Pathea Games’ reputation. The company’s Time series, which includes Portia and My Time at Sandrock, was selected as a 2021–2022 “important project” by the national government, and Portia has sold over one million copies across various platforms. What were smaller Chinese developers to do? How could a one-person developer with no social media following achieve a similar result?
Hoping to draw more attention to the issue and effect longer-lasting change, Deng recently released a joint statement by Chinese game studios on Wechat. In this statement, he called on the government to regulate merchant platforms to protect the legal rights of developers; on merchant platforms, such as Taobao, to create publishing restrictions so that only copyright holders can sell their games; and on gamers to respect the legal rights of developers and only buy authorized versions of games.
Responses to Deng’s post on social media reflect how piracy is viewed by Chinese consumers. Pirating media was the norm for decades in China, in part because of a lack of official channels to purchase products, and this may still be the case today. Many social media users blamed Pathea Games for not taking appropriate measures (such as implementing always-online systems for single player games), while others justified piracy, claiming that many who pirate games later 补票, or purchase them when they have the means.