While the first image of a black hole has generated so much sensation about scientific discovery in the world, it sparked a big storm in China (unintentionally).

Many Chinese businesses started using the image on their social media channels, and sometimes with a funky twist. For example, the following compared the black hole to Yeontan, a type of coal briquettes common in East Asian households in the past.

“I have that in my house as well”

Visual China Group(VCG), an online agency of stock media, quickly claimed the distribution rights of the picture. Their agents quickly sent legal notices to businesses that used the image for copyright violation.

Pay me to use this image

That set off furious responses across the board, and exposed the practices that VCG has been employing for a few years: claiming the copyright (even if it does not own it) and extort businesses which allegedly violate such copyright.

David Zhang, Founding Managing Partner of Matrix Partners China, openly criticised VCG’s practice last year

That triggered furious responses from a lot of people. However, it is the Communist Youth League of China, the youth arm of the Communist Party of China, who delivered the heaviest punch. In a Weibo message, it asked VCG publicly: “Do you own our national flag and emblem as well?”

As it turned out, they were indeed selling Chinese flag and emblem images, which is technically illegal in China.

With such a strong voice, many who have been suffering from VCG’s aggressive tactics came out and struck back. The story brewed quickly and overnight the government information office actually summoned VCG executives to deliver a warning.

The stock price of VCG (listed on Shenzhen Exchange) plunged and trades suspended for today. Almost CNY 2 billion (US$300 million) of market value evaporated – just as the major shareholders ended their lock-down period. 

Even VCG’s web site became inaccessible.

Of course, as any public opinion storm, this will quiet down in a few days’ time. However, whether VCG’s market cap can be sustained is actually a big question mark. The sales tactic is so hated that it is probably difficult for them to reboot the same revenue generation machine.

One question to ponder: what is their relationship with Getty?

Thanks for reading The Low Down (TLD), the blog by the team at Momentum Works. Got a different perspective or have a burning opinion to share? Let us know at [email protected].