Renowned writer and translator Yang Jiang was angered upon learning that letters and manuscripts by her and her family members were about to be auctioned this month.
Also being auctioned are documents by the 102-year-old Yang's deceased husband Qian Zhongshu, who was one of the nation's best-known masters of literature and culture in modern history.
One of the involved auctioneers, Poly International Auction Co, decided on June 2 to remove the three controversial letters from the planned auction, to "show respect" to the family.
The other auctioneer, Sungari Auction Co, has taken no action so far, and the family's works are still listed as goods to be auctioned on its website. But a senior executive of the company, speaking on condition of anonymity, told China Daily that the company has great respect for Qian and Yang and would not do anything to hurt any member of the family.
Sungari, headquartered in Beijing, announced in mid May that it would auction 110 works of Qian's family, including 66 of Qian's personal letters to Li Kwok-Keung, former editor-in-chief of Hong Kong's Wide Angle magazine in the 1980s and 1990s.
Li claimed that he had "transferred the letters to a friend", so it was not he who sent them to auction. He also promised to give Yang a written explanation, the Legal Evening News reported.
Following Sungari's announcement, Poly International also revealed that three letters by Qian and Yang were to be included in its spring sales campaign from June 1 to 6. They were displayed in the pre-exhibition on May 29, fanning the flames of the dispute.
Yang responded by denouncing the auctions as an infringement of privacy and copyright. She has won support from China's copyright authorities and writers societies.
"Auctioning Qian's private letters may lead to infringement of the rights of property, authorship, privacy and reputation," Yu Cike, a senior official with the National Copyright Administration, told Xinhua News Agency.
The administration "supports the copyright owner to protect her rights in accordance with the law and will keep tracking the event", he added.
Tie Ning, chairperson of the Chinese Writers Association, said that publicizing and selling people's private materials is "against virtue and cultural conscience".
Shen Weixing, a professor of law at Tsinghua University, said that letters actually involve many types of rights.
"First of all, it's the ownership of the paper," he explained. "Then there are privacy rights regarding the content, as well as the copyright."
And the copyright includes two aspects - the right to the content and the right to the letter as a calligraphy work, he said.
His colleague Cheng Xiao said at a recent seminar that the property rights of the letters belong to their current owner, but the privacy rights and copyright belong to their writer and his or her successors when he or she dies.
"It amounts to infringement even though a buyer at the auction may claim that he only wants to keep the letters and will not publicize the content," said Cheng.
"It's like that a third person acquired and read the letter I had written to you. It is violation of privacy even though he did not make the letter published."
(China Daily 06/05/2013 page28)