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Auction of literary giant's letters sparks disputes

By Lu Qianwen (Global Times)

09:52, June 04, 2013

The news that more than 110 letters and manuscripts of great Chinese literary scholar and writer Qian Zhongshu (1910-98) will be auctioned in June has become a hot topic recently, as the late scholar's wife Yang Jiang, also a venerable writer, has issued public opposition against the auction of her husband's private letters.

Following the latest announcement by Beijing Sungari Auction Company that it will hold a special auction of Qian Zhongshu's letters and manuscripts on June 21, the 102-year-old Yang sent a lawyer's letter to the company requesting that it call off the auction, since it involved not just some rare manuscripts of Qian, but also some private letters between their families and friends.

"I'm deeply shocked and hurt by this incident. I don't understand why those utterly private letters among friends can be publicly auctioned," Yang wrote in her public letter issued on May 26.

Copyright infringement

This is not the first time that letters and manuscripts by a famous historic figure have been auctioned in the country. As recently as May 13 during the spring auction of China Guardian Auctions, calligraphy poetry manuscripts by Zhu Ziqing (writer, 1898-1948) were sold at 1.61 million yuan ($262,000). And the next day, nine letters written by Zhao Zhiqian (1829-84), a famous painter and calligrapher of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), were sold at 1.21 million yuan.

Though not a precedent, the controversy raised by the auction of Qian Zhongshu's letters is unprecedented. On the same day Yang issued her public letter, the School of Law of the Tsinghua University held a special seminar on the legal problems involved in the auction of public figures' letters.

Law experts at the seminar reached the conclusion that the auction of personal letters without the authorization of the copyright owner would definitely invade the author's privacy and violate copyright privileges (which further include publication right, right of reproduction, right of issue and others).

In the following days, relevant NGOs and government agencies including China Association of Auctioneers, National Copyright Administration of China (NCAC) and China Writers Association have also stated their support for Yang.

"The auction of Qian's personal letters may involve many aspects of legal rights including property rights, copyright, privacy and right of reputation," said Yu Cike, head of the department of copyright management of NCAC.

Yu explained that auctioneers have no right to make any use of those letters relating to their copyright without the authorization of the copyright owners. "For example, publicizing part or the whole content of those letters (which is inevitable in the auction) may invade the publication right of the copyright owner," said Yu.

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