The case is a departure from the usual pattern of U.S artists or companies going after Chinese copycats. Trade groups say illegal Chinese copying of music, designer clothing and other goods costs legitimate producers billions of dollars a year in lost sales.
Three separate lawsuits have been filed with the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court on behalf of 12 writers who allege 59 of their titles were sold unlicensed through Apple's iTunes online store, said Wang Guohua, a Beijing lawyer representing the writers.
The three suits together demand $3.5 million in compensation from Apple, Wang said. Well-known novelist and race car driver Han Han is among the writers taking the legal action, he said.
Apple did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Wang said Apple uploaded the Chinese writers' works without their permission, violating their copyright, and while Apple deleted some of the books after the suits were filed in January, some of the works quickly appeared again, apparently uploaded by developers that sell apps through the Apple Store.
"Some developers, with whom Apple has contracts, put them back online again," said Wang of the United Zhongwen Law Firm. "It is encouragement in disguise, because they did not punish the developers. The developers could have been kicked out. But nothing happened to them."
Wang said 10 other writers have also gotten involved since January but their suits have yet to be filed. In all, 23 writers have registered their complaints with Wang and claim that Apple sold 95 pirated titles.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported late Sunday that the writers were collectively seeking $7.7 million in compensation from Apple but Wang could not confirm that figure.
Product piracy is a major irritant in China-US relations, but usually involves complaints that Chinese are copying American products.
However, it's not the first time Chinese have cried foul over copyright infringement by an American company either. In 2009, the government-affiliated China Written Works Copyright Society complained that Google had scanned nearly 20,000 works by 570 Chinese authors without permission as part of its digital library project, drawing an apology from Google.
For Apple, the latest case is just one of several legal battles being fought in China. The company is embroiled in a battle over the iPad trademark with Proview Electronics Co., a Chinese computer monitor and LED light maker that says it registered the trademark more than a decade ago.
Proview wants Apple to stop selling or making the popular tablet computers under that name.
Apple says Proview sold it worldwide rights to the iPad trademark in 2009, though in China the registration was never transferred.
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