Authorities move to ensure illegal downloaders get fair process

Authorities move to ensure illegal downloaders get fair process
Reuters file photo
Published: 3:55 PM, September 20, 2016
Updated: 10:43 PM, September 20, 2016

SINGAPORE — In a first, the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS) and the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) are applying to the courts to intervene in proceedings involving rights owners of two movies going after illegal downloaders here, to ensure a fair process. If allowed, they want to put in safeguards and conditions to avoid “allegations of abuse”, they said in a joint statement on Tuesday (Sept 20).

For example, in some countries, conditions are imposed on the letters of demand issued to subscribers, to ensure that the content is phrased in a way that does not cause undue alarm.

Last month, TODAY reported that the owners of the movies, Queen of the Desert and Fathers & Daughters, had started legal proceedings to go after those who illegally downloaded the movies here, the second such case here. Film studio Voltage Pictures, which produced Fathers & Daughters, had also gone after illegal downloaders of Dallas Buyers Club, which it produced, last year. Queen of the Desert is produced by QOTD. Both are represented by Samuel Seow Law Corporation (SSLC), which acted for Voltage Pictures in the Dallas Buyers Club case, and had drawn complaints over how two of its former lawyers had handled the proceedings.  

In the statement, IPOS and AGC said: “(We) are of the view that whilst content owners have the right to enforce their intellectual property, this should be done in a way that builds legitimacy and respect for the entire process, and is not susceptible to allegations of abuse.” 

Abusive practices include “speculative invoicing”, also known as “copyright trolling”, where a party pursues quick settlements from alleged copyright infringers, by launching legal action against them and taking advantage of their reluctance to pursue their rights fully before the courts, said IPOS. 

Adding that they had reviewed the positions taken in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US in similar cases, IPOS and AGC said: “We will be asking the courts to consider imposing similar safeguards and conditions, if we are allowed to intervene.” IPOS said it was inappropriate to comment on the precise safeguards and conditions being sought at this point. But it noted that in the Australian case involving the producers of Dallas Buyers Club and Internet service provider iiNet, the court ordered that the draft of the letters to be sent to iiNet’s subscribers be submitted to the court for its consideration. 

In April last year, SSLC succeeded in getting the court to compel telcos to give up details of their customers who purportedly downloaded the movie Dallas Buyers Club, and filed civil claims against these customers. 

But two months later, the Internet Society (Singapore) filed a complaint with the Law Society of Singapore (LawSoc), alleging that Mr Robert Raj Joseph and Mr Lee Heng Eam, who were with SSLC then, had issued letters threatening criminal proceedings against the alleged downloaders, to advance the civil claims. This goes against the LawSoc’s Practice Directions and Rulings Guide, which states that it is improper for a solicitor to “communicate in writing or otherwise a threat of criminal proceedings in order to achieve a stated objective in any circumstance”. In May, LawSoc said it was taking action against two lawyers over their conduct in dealing with illegal downloaders of Dallas Buyers Club, without naming the lawyers. 

Intellectual property lawyers who spoke to TODAY welcomed it as a move to ensure a fair process. 

Mr Jason Chan, director of Amica Law, said: “If the court makes certain orders arising from the positions taken by AGC and IPOS ... future rights owners will definitely have to be aware of what happened in this case here.”

Mr Bryan Tan of Pinsent Masons, who became president of the Internet Society (Singapore) last month, agreed, noting that the latest case with Queen of the Desert and Fathers & Daughters has a similar modus operandi as the Dallas Buyers Club case. 

Other safeguards that could be introduced in such proceedings include setting a limit on the amount of damages that could be claimed, said the lawyers. 

A pre-trial conference on the Queen of the Desert and Fathers & Daughters case was held on Tuesday morning, during which the deadlines for the parties — Samuel Seow Law Corporation and M1, Singtel and StarHub — to exchange information were set, as well as directions for the progress of the case. 

TODAY understands that the case will likely be heard again in November.