Parliament

Sale of set-top boxes with pirated streams to be illegal

Individuals face fines of up to $100,000, up to 5 years' jail or both

Under the proposed changes, rights owners can take legal action against retailers who offer pirated music, shows or software - or access to such content - through set-top boxes, other devices and software applications.
Under the proposed changes, rights owners can take legal action against retailers who offer pirated music, shows or software - or access to such content - through set-top boxes, other devices and software applications.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Selling set-top boxes that offer access to pirated online streams of movies and television shows will soon be outlawed, with gaps plugged to make it harder for retailers to evade legal action.

These are among the proposed changes to the Copyright Act tabled in Parliament by the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) yesterday, as part of efforts to strengthen the copyright regime in Singapore.

The criminal penalties are also clearly spelt out, unlike now which depends on the situation. If found guilty under the proposed amendments, individuals can be fined up to $100,000, jailed for up to five years, or both.

For entities such as companies, they can be fined up to $200,000.

The move to tighten the Copyright Act also means that retailers can be sued by owners who have rights to the shows or movies.

The suggested amendments do not just cover set-top boxes and streamed shows. They also apply to any commercial dealings of copyright-infringing works through devices or services, including offers to sell such works.

This means that rights owners can take legal action against retailers who offer pirated music, shows or software - or access to such content - through not just set-top boxes or other devices but also software applications. The offender could be ordered to stop sales or compensate the rights owners if they suffered losses.

MinLaw noted that, currently, the Copyright Act does not account for more recent technological developments. They include set-top boxes or other streaming devices and services that allow people to access content from illegal sources.

"As our current laws are silent on these new types of devices and services, including how they are imported and sold, there is some legal uncertainty regarding whether enforcement action could be successfully taken," a ministry spokesman told The Straits Times.

This means that retailers can take advantage of this ambiguity to sell such devices for profit. Consumers are often misled into thinking that the content accessed is legal, said the spokesman.

And, in some cases, they are led to believe that the device subscription charges they pay go to the rights holders.

The illegal streaming boxes can cost a few hundred dollars.

Content providers, cable broadcasters and associations representing them have raised these issues with MinLaw and highlighted the evolving ways these set-top boxes are marketed and sold.

While court actions have been taken in the past, whether or not the Copyright Act can be applied in all the different situations "remains unclear, given the lack of explicit provisions on this issue", said the spokesman.

Mr Alban Kang, a partner at law firm Bird & Bird ATMD's intellectual property and technology group, said while public statistics were not readily available, it appeared that only one or two legal actions had been taken against retailers.

One landmark court case against piracy here involved a man who was fined a total of $36,600 over 2019 and last year, while his company, Synnex Trading, was fined $160,800 in 2019 for selling illegal streaming Android TV boxes. Each box could sell for as little as $219, as marketed on Synnex's Facebook page.

The proposed Copyright Act changes also mean that even if retailers sell a "clean" device without the offending streaming apps, but offer to load them as an extra service, or include instructions on how to modify the device to watch shows online illegally, they will likely fall foul of the law.

Retailers also cannot install apps onto a consumer's gadget to watch pirated shows online.

Mr Kang said that "the current law does not help content owners since there is nothing illegal about selling the 'empty' set-top boxes". This is despite retailers often giving customers verbal instructions on how to download illegal streaming apps.

MinLaw said the changes are meant "to encourage consumption of copyright works from legitimate sources".

The proposed amendments, and others, arose from a review of the Copyright Act that involved a three-year assessment and several rounds of consultation since 2016.

The Act was last revised in 2014.

Another suggested change will allow creators of photographs, portraits, engravings, sound recordings and films to be the default first owners of the copyright, even if they are commissioned to make them. Currently, the commissioning party or employer has default ownership.

If the Copyright Act changes are passed in Parliament, MinLaw expects most of the provisions to kick in around November.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2021, with the headline 'Sale of set-top boxes with pirated streams to be illegal'. Subscribe