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Coming onstream: Laws banning sale of set-top boxes

SINGAPORE — Importers and sellers of set-top boxes that enable streaming of pirated movies or television shows will run afoul of laws that the Ministry of Law plans to table this year.

New laws will target those who sell software that allows access to pirated content or who provide “add-on” services such as instructions on how to access the content.

New laws will target those who sell software that allows access to pirated content or who provide “add-on” services such as instructions on how to access the content.

SINGAPORE — Importers and sellers of set-top boxes that enable streaming of pirated movies or television shows will run afoul of laws that the Ministry of Law plans to table this year.

This means consumers may not be able to head to places such as Sim Lim Square in future for their pick of such devices, which cost about S$99 and above, as reported by TODAY previously.

In a report released on Thursday (Jan 17), the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) and the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (Ipos) said that new laws will be introduced to “impose civil and criminal liability on people who wilfully make, import for sale, commercially distribute or sell” products that enable access to audio-visual content from unauthorised sources.

The new laws will also target those who sell software that allows access to pirated content or who provide “add-on” services such as instructions on how to access the content, the agencies stated in the Singapore Copyright Review Report.

“Our policy position is not to allow commercial gains derived from enabling access to content from unauthorised sources,” they said.

The announcement comes after a three-year review of the Copyright Act and amendments will be tabled in Parliament sometime this year.

The legality of these set-top boxes has been a contentious issue because there are no laws governing the sale of these devices that stream copyrighted content through applications.

In December 2017, the Coalition Against Piracy — whose members include major entertainment companies — said that the devices facilitate “rampant” piracy in Singapore.

And in an unprecedented case in January last year, a group of rights owners — including two telcos Singtel and StarHub, as well as entertainment giant Fox and the organising body of the English Premier League (EPL) — sought a private prosecution against two companies and their directors for selling legitimate set-top boxes which give users unbridled access to copyrighted programmes.

NEVER-ENDING TECH RACE?

Intellectual property lawyers had mixed reactions to Thursday’s announcement.

Mr Mark Teng, who chairs the intellectual property enforcement sub-committee of the Law Society of Singapore, said that the proposed amendments would give “enhanced protection” for copyright owners.

A key difference, he noted, is that the proposed changes would empower the police to launch an investigation and enforce the laws in Singapore.

Under current legislation, copyright owners have to make an application themselves.

Mr Samuel Yuen of Yuen Law said that the proposed changes could drive the market for audio-visual content “underground” or result in new ways to circumvent the law.

“When will the technology race ever end? I don’t think it will,” he said.

Mr Bryan Tan from law firm Pinsent Masons wondered if proposed laws would be effective, given that previous “drastic” changes “did not work”.

The Copyright Act was amended in 2014 to allow copyright owners to get Internet service providers to block piracy websites through a court order, he noted.

The popularity of set-top boxes shows that there is demand for media content, which copyright owners could make more readily available and affordable, lawyers said.

“We do pay a very high price for the content. It doesn’t help the piracy situation,” Mr Tan said.

Rights owners could consider imposing a usage fee for the viewing of their content, perhaps by working out a deal with the manufacturers of such set-top boxes, Mr Yuen suggested.

Mr Ronald Wong from law firm Covenant Chambers said that the law can keep pace with technological developments by being broad enough “to catch hardware and software that is designed or made primarily for giving access to pirated content”.

He noted that as the proposed law criminalises only people who manufacture, import, distribute or sell such products, consumers may not be caught under this law. “It depends on how the new law will be worded,” he said.

In their report, MinLaw and Ipos said they are mindful that new laws should not be overly broad, such that they inadvertently catch retailers of any device that allows users to access online content from unauthorised sources.

Retailers of “general” multi-purpose devices such as computers and mobile phones should not be made responsible for how buyers set up and use such devices, they said.

Besides retailers, legal action should also be possible against those higher up in the supply chain, such as manufacturers, they said.

Industry players welcomed the announcement.

Mr Neil Gane, general manager of advocacy group Coalition Against Piracy said the proposed legislation is a “positive development”.

Among the members of the anti-piracy unit of the Asia Video Industry Association are media conglomerates such as The Walt Disney Company, HBO and Fox Networks.

Mr Gane said Sim Lim Square is one of the “most egregious” malls in Southeast Asia for the overt selling of set-top boxes. He hopes that these retailers will also no longer be represented at IT fairs in Singapore once the laws come into effect.

The proposal will also mean that retailers will no longer be able to mislead consumers into thinking that the content they are watching through the set-top boxes are accessed legally and that the subscription fees they are paying go to the rights holders, he said.

Mr Gane is also the complainant acting on behalf of the group of rights owners charging the two sellers of Android TV set-top boxes.

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