Dallas Buyers Club case: Uphill task to sue users, say lawyers

Hurdles include identifying actual offender, costly suits

A cinema still from the movie Dallas Buyers Club starring Jared Leto (left) and Matthew McConaughey. -- PHOTO: SHAW
A cinema still from the movie Dallas Buyers Club starring Jared Leto (left) and Matthew McConaughey. -- PHOTO: SHAW

The copyright owner of Oscar-winning film Dallas Buyers Club may have an uphill task suing consumers here for having allegedly downloaded the movie illegally online, say lawyers.

The biggest challenge is to identify the actual people who had infringed the film's copyright. Another reason cited is the high cost of a civil suit.

A company of Hollywood producer Voltage Pictures, which owns the film rights, identified more than 500 Singapore Internet protocol (IP) addresses, from subscribers of the three major Internet service providers (ISPs) - Singtel, StarHub and M1 - where the movie was downloaded illegally.

Voltage's company Dallas Buyers Club LLC has obtained a Singapore High Court order to compel all three ISPs to release the details of subscribers linked to the IP addresses in question.

"But the rights holder also needs to establish a link between an impugned IP address to a person," said lawyer Bryan Tan, a technology partner at Pinsent Masons MPillay.

Establishing the link is tough because families share the same Wi-Fi connection, and as such, have the same IP address. Some Wi-Fi connections are also not secured and are freely accessed by anyone. "It is unclear whether the law will presume liability for the Internet account holder," said Mr Tan.

Starting a class action suit is also a costly affair, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, for rights owners.

"The cost is dependent largely on how many people are defending and the defence raised," said intellectual property lawyer Cyril Chua of ATMD Bird & Bird.

Dallas Buyers Club, whose parent company Voltage has been on a global anti-piracy rampage, is represented by local law firm Samuel Seow Law Corporation here.

In October last year, Singtel received a letter from Dallas Buyers Club's lawyers, alleging that some of Singtel's subscribers had illegally downloaded the film. It asked for the identities of some 150 subscribers.

Singtel said it refused to provide the information to protect customers' confidential information. Even in court, Singtel said its lawyers questioned if the evidence provided by Dallas Buyers Club was "sufficiently detailed and clear" to support its claims of infringement.

Dallas Buyers Club also made similar "pre-action discovery" applications at the High Court to force StarHub and M1 to release customer details.

The film company succeeded in its application against all three ISPs.

Over the weekend, Samuel Seow Law Corporation sent out its first batch of letters to Internet users here asking for a written offer of damages and costs within three days of receiving the letter. It is not known how many have responded to the letter.

"Most cases of this nature are settled without commencing a court action or prior to a court assessment of damages," said Mr Lau Kok Keng, intellectual property lawyer at Rajah & Tann Singapore.

Court proceedings are usually not pursued in cases of small-scale downloads as the real value of the infringement is only the price of a licensed movie download or a DVD, plus legal fees and investigation costs, he added.

Alternatively, copyright holders can claim statutory damages, which can go up to $10,000 per title per person, under Singapore's Copyright Act.

"It is awarded in circumstances where the rights owners cannot prove actual losses," said Mr Chua of ATMD Bird & Bird. But these damages have not been awarded against consumers so far, he added.

A civil suit, if pursued by Dallas Buyers Club, could set the precedent for more of such lawsuits. But the consumer backlash may deter many from taking this route, said digital media lawyer Matt Pollins at Olswang.

"Piracy is an emotive issue and if a large portion of the Internet community takes exception to you suing consumers, then that can be quite damaging for your brand," Mr Pollins said.

"It is for this reason that the Recording Industry Association of America announced in 2008 that it would stop suing consumers directly."

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