Visual China Group, the “Getty Images of China” and owner of 500px, has sparked an outcry after it attempted to claim copyright to the first-ever black hole picture that became a worldwide sensation this week.
After the groundbreaking black hole image was published by the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (EHT) on April 10th, it was soon made available through VCG’s leading stock photo service in China with the VCG watermark splashed across it. But the problem was, EHT had released the image for free distribution under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
“This is an editorial image. Please call 400-818-2525 or consult our customer service representative for commercial use,” the VCG page for the image stated, according to TechCrunch.
Concerned Chinese netizens also turned to social media to share a chat conversation with a VCG rep. When asked whether the picture belongs to VCG, the rep stated, “Yes.” And when asked whether the image needs to be purchased for use on a poster, the rep replied that it does indeed need to be licensed before it can be used.
But it turns out this black hole image controversy was only the tip of the iceberg. With some more digging, it came to light that VCG was claiming copyright to everything from well-known company logos to the Chinese national emblem and national flag — selling images of the emblem and flag are illegal in China.
As the controversy grew, it attracted the attention of Chinese authorities, which issued an order instructing the company to put an end to its “illegal, rule-breaking practices.” VCG responded by removing all the offending images it could find and suspend its website’s operations — VCG.com is offline at the time of this writing.
As the company’s stock plummeted 10% on the Shanghai Stock Exchange in response to the news on Monday, the company published an open letter apologizing for the scandal and explaining the all the incorrectly labeled images had been submitted by contributors.
“We failed to do our due diligence in assessment, leading to the appearance of substandard content,” VCG writes. “We have taken down all non-compliant photos and closed down the site voluntarily for a revamp in accordance with related laws.”