4 things you shouldn't miss about China's ISBN rules

08.09.2020

Everyone who has been following China mobile game market should know it by now: Your game can’t enter the world’s largest market without first acquiring the game publishing license, aka ISBN approval, issued by the Chinese industry regulatory body NAPP. This has been the case for the Android market since 2017, but from July 1st, 2020 onwards Apple has also been forced follow the regulation and require proof of ISBN for any game that involves end-user payment (IAP and pay per download). Speaking to lot of western game developers and publishers, I’ve realised that there are several of key points about the China ISBN rules and regulations that are almost always overlooked or misunderstood.

Who can apply for ISBN?

There are two roles involved in the ISBN application and the final certificate that you need to understand:

  1. Game Publisher (出版单位)
  2. Game Operator (运营单位).

The Game Publisher and Game Operator can be one and the same company or two different companies. This might be a little bit confusing, but the Game Operator here is actually referring to the publishing entity who is responsible for the game’s distribution and operation (whom you would normally call ‘publisher’). Companies with Internet Content Provider (ICP) license qualify for the Game Operator role. The Game Publisher on the other hand is not necessarily involved in the actual publishing and the operation of the game at all. The Game Publisher in this context is an entity with Internet Publishing License, i.e. company who has been entrusted by the regulator to understand and follow the self-censorship requirements to publish content online. No foreign companies nor their China subsidiaries nor Sino-foreign joint ventures are qualified to get these business licenses and thus can not apply or hold ISBN by themselves - The only way to get ISBN is to license your game’s China publishing rights to a local publisher.

Internet Publishing License holders are typically big internet portal operators or VAS providers or traditional media houses who are publishing their content online. Some of the biggest game publishers like Tencent and NetEase for example, have both the ICP and Internet Publishing License and thus can fill both roles for ISBN certificate by themselves. Vast majority of the publishers however don’t have Internet Publishing License and this is where ISBN Agencies come in to picture.

Before going into ISBN Agencies though, lets first understand on high level how the application process works. The Internet Publishing License holders will submit their ISBN applications to their home province’s provincial level NAPP bureau. After the game has passed the Provincial Bureau’s review, the Provincial Bureau will pass it on to the Central Bureau in Beijing for final review and approval.

Now to the ISBN Agencies: They are state owned or privatised publishing houses with Internet Publishing License, who have been appointed to help game developers/publishers to apply for ISBN. They are companies who don’t have any game publishing business themselves and their role is simply to help game developers/publishers to comply with the regulation and apply the ISBN. Aside from applying for the ISBN, they don’t intervene in the actual publishing of the game in any way. Typically each Chinese province has number of ISBN Agencies whom developers/publishers can use to apply for ISBN and majority of the ISBN approvals are indeed applied through and issued for these companies. In fact, many of the bigger publishers who hold their own Internet Publishing License are still using these Agencies to apply ISBN, in order to enhance their chances of getting multiple approvals faster through several provinces.

Foreign game ISBN certificate includes the game Chinese name and the Game Publisher and the Game Operator company names, but not the original developer / IP owner’s name or the game original language name.

How long it takes and can relationship help?

Every Chinese publisher who has been in the business for long enough can tell you that they have secured ISBN in three months, because that used to be the case in the early days. However that is not the case anymore and foreign game ISBN handling has since 2018 been extremely slow and you should be mentally prepared for 12-18 months wait if you submit your application now. For domestic games though the queue seems to move faster and there are few provinces with fast lane policies where games can get the approval in around 6 months. With this long waiting time and the famously relationship-based Chinese business culture, many are asking if a close government relationship or other special ‘guanxi’ can help to get pass faster? The short answer is no, not for foreign games at least. Don’t just take my word for it - look at the examples like Tencent-owned Supercell’s Brawl Stars, which has now finally (and very successfully) been launched in China after some 1.5 years ISBN wait. The best way to get ISBN sooner is to start your application early on and to make sure it is content and feature wise 100% compliant with the regulation.

No expiry, no transfer

Here are the four most crucial facts about ISBN that foreign companies often miss:

  • A game can only get one ISBN and can only have one Game Operator. The Game Operator must provide approval authorities proof of at least 12 months exclusive right to publish your game in China.
  • ISBN doesn’t have expiry and cancelling an existing ISBN is not straightforward at all.
  • The ISBN in non-transferrable, i.e. you can’t transfer it from one Game Operator to another.
  • At the moment, the registered Game Operator can authorise another publisher to operate the game under the ISBN.

What this means is that you’re not only married to the Game Operator, but you’re married with kids and walking away from that relationship is more than just complicated. In practise, there are several important scenarios you need to consider (and you need to make sure your contract lawyer understands):

  1. Switching your Android publisher. At the time of writing this, it’s still possible for foreign companies to self-publish on China China iOS App Store (as long as your game has ISBN) and most companies prefer to do so, but on the Android side a local publisher (with ICP license) is a must. Typically it is your Android publishing partner who applies the ISBN for your game and thus becomes the registered Game Operator for your title (and in some cases also Game Publisher). If everything goes well, there’re no worries: Your partner keeps publishing the Android version and you will both make money. Sometimes though, publishing collaborations don’t work for one reason or another, and you might end up in situation where you’d want to terminate the deal and switch to another publisher. In such event, would need to get your original partner, the Game Operator, to authorise your new partner to publish the game under the ISBN that is registered for them. This is one of the key terms your contract lawyer should pen in to your original publishing agreement.
  2. Self-publishing on iOS. The ISBN certificate does not mention the developer’s name or even the game’s original non-Chinese name and you will need Game Operator’s authorisation to publish your game in China iOS App Store. This sounds bizarre and unfair but yes, you do indeed need your Chinese publishing partner to grant you a license to publish your own game. And it’s not just the contractual right that you’ll need, but your Game Operator partner also needs to provide you with bunch of supportive documents such as authorisation letter, copy of their business license and copy of the actual ISBN license, etc. Without these, you might face difficulties in submitting your game to Apple China App Store. As your Game Operator partner will always remain the same, you will want to secure their support even in a situation where you have terminated their Android publishing rights.
  3. Chinese iOS publisher becoming mandatory. Currently Apple is still allowing foreign developer accounts to submit games in China App Store, even though according to China’s regulation this should actually be limited to local companies with ICP license only. While so far there hasn’t been any strong indicator suggesting that things would change, there is a real chance that China would force Apple to fully enforce the regulation on this front as well. That would mean that only your Game Operator partner or another ICP license holder who is authorised by your Game Operator partner could distribute your game on China iOS App Store through their developer account. To be safe rather than sorry, you need to take this possible scenario into account already now.

Chinese name is fixed

Modern f2p games are ever-evolving services and it’s ok for you to keep developing your game with new content and features during the ISBN application, as long as you make sure it complies with regulations. However, one thing must be fixed at the very beginning and can not be modified later: Your game’s Chinese name. The ISBN is applied for the China version of your game, with the Chinese name, and the name displayed in App Store listing must match the one on your ISBN certificate. As game developers are typically accustomed to freedom of changing the game name several times during the development and soft launch or even after hard launch, two things here require attention:

  • Make sure the Chinese name is good, especially from marketing / user acquisition perspective.
  • Make sure to secure necessary trade mark registrations for the Chinese name well in advance. You don’t wanna wait for 18 months to get ISBN just to realise that your game’s name infringes somebody’s registered trade mark.

And that’s it. At MyGamez, we always want to operate with clear and transparent business terms that are fair for both parties and I hope that this article managed to equip you with some valuable ISBN related business details. Lets be in touch!

Author: Mikael Leinonen, CEO at MyGamez

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