Youku.com Inc, the biggest player by market share, has found itself the subject of bitter accusations from smaller sites.
Last month, the company was asked for 150 million yuan ($23.8 million) in compensation for copyright infringements by Tudou Holdings Ltd and Tudou's licensed partner, Cti TV. Youku was then successively hit by lawsuits filed by five more companies, including TV Tokyo Corp and Huayi Brothers Media Corp, a movie producer and distributor. Youku responded by saying it has started a "copyright protection move with the largest scale ever" and has launched a lawsuit against Tudou for alleged copyright infringements.
This is the second copyright protection in the online video sector. In 2009, Sohu.com Inc initiated one that helped lead the industry, then flooded with piracy content, to show a greater concern for copyright.
The recent fight is an attempt to stem losses at online video websites where companies have spent a lot more than they earned on copyright purchases, analysts said.
"The purchases of hot TV series and movies cost a lot, and the ones whose copyrights are sold to only one online video website cost even more," said Zhang Fan, an analyst with domestic research company Analysys International.
Charles Zhang, Sohu's chairman and chief executive officer, complained previously that copyright prices had rocketed to an unreasonably high level over the past few years. The price of an episode of a TV series has risen from several thousand yuan a few years ago to as high as 800,000 yuan, he said in July.
To lure more users, major online video companies have poured an increasingly large amount of money into copyrights. Youku, for example, spent 152 million yuan over the past three quarters on content purchases, nearly doubling its total in 2010 of 82.7 million yuan, according to its financial reports.