SINGAPORE - 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) on Tuesday (July 6), 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 for 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 to 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 run afoul of the law.
Retailers also cannot install apps onto a consumer's gadget, like a smart TV, to watch pirated shows online.
Mr Kang said, currently, many set-up boxes are sold without any infringing apps or works.
Retailers often tell customers how to download illegal apps to stream unauthorised content on their TV sets, such as English Premier League football matches, he added.
"The current law does not help content owners since there is nothing illegal about selling the 'empty' set-up boxes."
But "if the main function of the device is to allow unauthorised... streaming, the retailers will be caught by the new provisions", he noted.
MinLaw said the changes are meant "to encourage consumption of copyright works from legitimate sources".
Still, they do not overtly address the issue of people using devices or services to watch pirated content.
Mr Kang said there are practical and cost considerations in taking action against users. "The aim of the change in the law is to deal with the problem at its source," he noted, in other words the import and distribution of the offending set-top boxes.
But the Copyright Act has other provisions to address the issue of people consuming copyright-infringing content, he added.
For example, content owners can try to get a court order that requires Internet service providers to block access to websites that stream unauthorised content.
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.
The Bill introduced in Parliament on Tuesday simplifies the wording of the law to make it more accessible.
It also proposes to make it a requirement for anyone who uses or shares a work or performance publicly, such as putting up a dance video or photo of a painting online or publishing the piece, to identify the creator or performer.
This has to be done in a clear and reasonably prominent manner, said MinLaw.
There are some instances - such as artistic works in public places - where this crediting is not needed.
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.
The proposed amendment will put the creators in the same position as the originators of other commissioned works - such as songs, computer graphics and books - who have the copyright ownership from the get-go.
But a creator's copyright ownership can be waived in contracts during negotiations.
If the Bill on the Copyright Act changes is passed in Parliament, MinLaw expects most of the provisions to kick in around November.