But the practice was later adjusted with its focus being shifted to guiding readers to the original sources, according to Zhang.
"About 70 percent of the clicks on our app will go directly to the original sites and I don't see any legal risk to this part of our business. The remaining clicks will direct users to our reformatted pages where we can still keep the logo from the original website. This part of our business could be controversial," Zhang said during an interview with Southern Weekly on June 6.
Zhang explained that the reformatting is mainly driven by technological needs as some pages, mainly from smaller websites, are unusable by Toutiao app and browsing them directly could lead to the application crashing.
Newspaper Beijing Times reported on June 7 that Toutiao has launched a study into minimizing the reformatting of pages unless it is technically unavoidable.
"We have tried to communicate with websites whose content is not adaptable with our app. If they still reject our app reformatting their content, we will remove any links; if they can see the possibility of any form of cooperation, we will discuss it further with them," Zhang told Beijing Times.
However, many legal experts refuse to accept Zhang's description of his app as being equivalent to Internet search engines.
"Compared to search results from Baidu, the world's largest Chinese-language Internet search engine, which shows only a tiny part of the content of the original websites, Toutiao has edited the information, which makes it a content provider instead of a search engine," said Xu Chao, a former senior official with the Copyright Management Department of the National Copyright Administration. He said that once copyright infringement was established, content providers hold the primary responsibility and service providers hold an indirect responsibility.
Zhang Hongbo, Director General of the China Written Works Copyright Society, said that Toutiao has at least infringed upon the rights of traditional media, reporters and other authors. According to him, many of society's members have complained about Toutiao's practice and are considering launching a class action lawsuit against the company together with industrial associations of traditional media outlets.
Song Jianwu, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication of Beijing-based China University of Political Science and Law, defended Toutiao's model from the perspective of enhancing the public's right to know in an interview with China News Service.
Song said that compared with the Copyright Law, the Information Network Transmission Right Protection Ordinance leaves more space for the spread of information over the Internet, especially content related to current affairs.
The ordinance, which came out in 2006 and was amended in 2013, lists eight categories of works that can be spread through networks without the permission of copyright owners or paying them. The seventh category is published articles on political and economic issues related to current affairs.
"The overall development of the web-based media has better guaranteed the public's right to know by making information more accessible," Song said.
Song said that these copyright infringement litigations filed by the traditional media are not necessarily winnable and even if they did win, there are little real benefits to their operation.
Many websites whose links appear on Toutiao app are partners that approached it. These often lesser-known sites have garnered a boost in online traffic after cooperating with Toutiao by receiving visits from users of the app. Dongqiudi.com, a football information website, is one such site.
Chen Cong, the website's founder, told Southern Weekly that around 40 percent of the traffic to their mobile website comes from Toutiao. He said that the controversies over the legality of Toutiao are mainly caused by the different mindsets of traditional and new media.
Nextcar.cn, an auto information website, is also a partner of Toutiao despite originally opposing the app. In January, Nextcar's founder Hai Lan paid a visit to Zhang Yiming, asking Toutiao to stop reformatting the pages from her website. Instead of pulling all related content from his app, Zhang promised to replace the reformatting with redirecting readers to Nextcar's original pages after conducting tests on Nextcar.cn. This led to an immediate increase in visits to the website and visits by Toutiao users make up around one quarter of Nextcar's total traffic.
Similar cooperation also exists between Toutiao and the mobile web edition of news portal Huanqiu.com. The special format tailored for the users of Toutiao by the latter receives a total of 6 million to 10 million visits daily.
Shen Yang, a professor at the School of Information Management of Wuhan University in central China's Hubei Province, said instead of confronting each other, traditional and web-based media should seek cooperation. "I hope that both sides could constructively discuss topics of copyright protection and technological innovation in the new era under the legal framework," Shen said.
Email us at: email@example.com