The first app edition of the Xinhua Dictionary, the Chinese reference book with the largest circulation in the world, which was launched on June 11, has spurred widespread controversy for allowing users to search only two characters for free every day. Moreover, the app charges 40 yuan ($5.8), more than double the price of a hard copy sold online, if users want to continue to use the service.
The dictionary, published by the Commercial Press, was the first to use pinyin, a system for transliterating Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet. Its first edition came out in 1953, and 567 million hard copies had been sold as of July 2015.
Compared with the hard copy edition, the app will be updated regularly. Li Ruiying,a former anchor for China Central Television, pronounces each character, and the app illustrates its stroke sequence and links to a snapshot of the page in the print dictionary that contains the character.
While some say the app is too expensive, others say it's worth the price because it has more functions than the paper edition and the price shows respect for intellectual property rights (IPRs).
Gao Lu (Qianjiang Evening News): It seems that whether the price of the app is worthwhile should be decided by the market. Although the app edition has avoided the costs of printing, distribution and circulation of a paper edition, the costs of development and daily maintenance should not be ignored. Moreover, the app has added more functions, such as the pronunciation of each character, and is therefore no longer a simple dictionary, but more like software for learning.
However, can the app sell well, given there are already many similar apps which have similar added features as well as exercises?
Also, few people look up characters in a dictionary today, as they can get the pronunciation and meaning of characters through search engines. It's too optimistic to believe that the Xinhua Dictionary app can attract users with several simple functions.
Online content is offered either for free or for profit. Internet companies that offer content for free gain profits through network traffic.
In reality, the "for free" model often has brighter market prospects. For instance, Baidu Baike, China's largest Web-based encyclopedia, which is free, is successful. The overly high price of the Xinhua Dictionary app may restrict its market prospects.
The Internet is exerting a profound influence on the way knowledge is spread. It's impossible for one institution to monopolize the spread of knowledge today. The Commercial Press took the right step in launching the app, but it needs to do more in order to restore the dictionary to its former glory, such as inviting private capital to participate in the development of the app.
Wang Qingfeng (Nanfang Daily): In the Internet era, which endorses a sharing spirit, most online dictionaries are free. Even those that charge a price only charge a fee for advanced services such as online education, while providing most of the basic functions for free. Allowing only two free searches a day reflects ignorance of the Internet. Such a mindset is behind the times.
Admittedly, reference books are copyrighted, therefore, it's reasonable for their app editions to charge a price. Moreover, the official Xinhua Dictionary app is more authoritative than other information provided online, and is therefore worth paying for. However, in reality, many online dictionaries are free. The functions that need to be paid for are advanced services such as a virtual classroom. Such a practice not only avoids piracy, but also promotes competition between different apps.
However, the paid-for services of the Xinhua Dictionary app are only minor upgrades of the basic functions rather than advanced ones. The price is therefore not worth paying.
Hu Han (The Beijing News): Although the Xinhua Dictionary is authoritative, it has already lost its advantage at a time when users can look up characters on search engines such as Baidu. Allowing two free searches a day also shows little sincerity.
Online products should be user-oriented. They should first of all satisfy users' demands and then consider the charging model. In this case, however, the app developer has only considered how to charge, but not what users can get from the app.
Embarrassingly, users are not satisfied with the services provided by the free part, and the paid part cannot provide what users require.
Developers should at first adopt a user-oriented approach in order to provide convenience for users. Such a mindset runs counter to that engendered by authority and monopoly.
Right to charge
Song Pengwei (Xinxi Shibao): Compared with paper dictionaries, an app requires high costs for development and maintenance. It's reasonable for a commercial product to charge as long as its price is decided according to the value of the product as well as market demand and supply. Low demand may force the app to lower or even remove its charge.
It's normal for apps of reference books to charge money, because such apps are not suitable for product placement and therefore cannot make money this way. As for whether the price is high or not, it depends on users' purchasing power and the urgency of their need. For instance, for a user having no interest in reading, he or she may find it not worthwhile to buy any books, even if the books are cheap.
Therefore, whether the app charges fees should be for its developers to decide, and the price should be set according to market principles. Nobody has the right to blame app developers for charging money for their products.
Si Hanhan (Legal Daily): The Xinhua Dictionary app is not simply an online version of the paper dictionary; it is a recreation of the original dictionary using modern technology. It's inappropriate to compare the price of the app with the paper edition, because it has high innovation value.
The controversy surrounding the price reflects the conundrum in IPR protection in China. Chinese Internet users have been accustomed to downloading content for free online and are suspicious of charged services. As a matter of fact, although only two characters can be looked up per day, users can enjoy more functions of the app without constraint as long as they pay 40 yuan. In the software industry, guiding users to pay for more advanced services by initially providing them with a small amount of free services is a widely accepted practice, and it is also necessary for IPR protection.
The controversy actually reveals inadequate IPR protection in China: The public has low awareness of IPR protection, supervision and management of IPR protection is loose, and IPR infringement is prevalent. When people are used to enjoying the fruits of others' labor for free, how can the rights of content creators be protected?
The practice of charging money reflects the copyright owner's recognition of their rights. Consumers should learn to pay for innovation and safeguard the legal rights of content creators. The debate regarding the app shows that China still has a long way to go to cultivate a culture of respect for IPR.
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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