SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - Singapore, which prides itself on being a haven for law and order, is being called a haven for pirating copyrighted programming by entertainment titans such as Walt Disney, HBO, the National Basketball Association and the English Premier League.
Viewers in the city-state buy legitimate set-top boxes that also allow unauthorised streaming of thousands of movies, TV shows and live sporting events, said the Coalition Against Piracy.
Its 21 members, including divisions of Sony Corp. and Twenty-First Century Fox Inc, want the government to block the pirating software inside the devices, which are found at local electronics stores and on e-commerce sites such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd's Lazada.
"Within the Asia-Pacific region, Singapore is the worst in terms of availability of illicit streaming devices," said Mr Neil Gane, general manager of the Asia-focused coalition, referring to countries where the boxes are considered legal.
"They have access to hundreds of illicit broadcasts of channels and video-on-demand content."
Singapore is a focal point in the entertainment industry's campaign to curb piracy in the region.
Online TV and movie piracy will cost the industry an estimated US$31.8 billion (S$42.87 billion) in global revenue this year, reaching US$51.6 billion by 2022, according to London-based Digital TV Research.
The Asia-Pacific region will become the largest for online piracy next year, overtaking North America, the researcher said.
Singapore ranked ninth in the number of visits per Internet user to piracy websites, according to London-based Muso TNT, which tracks such visits.
In a separate survey of 1,000 Singaporeans sponsored by industry association CASBAA, about 40 per cent said they were active consumers of pirated content.
"The piracy here is rampant and shockingly so," said Ms Lise-Anne Stott, Singapore-based head of legal for A+E Networks Asia, a coalition member that offers History, Lifetime and three other channels there.
The boxes allow Singaporeans to use apps that access programming not shown at home because it's censored, lacks a licensing deal or requires a subscription fee users don't want to pay.
In some cases, users can stream uncensored versions - with nudity or violence - of locally available shows such as A+E's Vikings.
"Copyright infringement is not so much about a device or technology as it is about whether that device or technology is used in a manner that is illegal," the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore said in an e-mail. "Users of such devices should therefore ensure that they are accessing content from authorised content providers."
Some of the devices scraping the Internet for unauthorised content come from Chinese vendors such as Unblock and EVPad.
The square gadgets can be bought either with the streaming apps already installed for plug-and-pirate use or with embedded links for downloading those apps.
Tutorials to set them up are found on YouTube and Baidu Inc's online forum.
The Singapore government said it didn't consider the devices themselves to be illegal. The boxes also can view legally available websites such as YouTube.
At Sim Lim Square, an electronics market a short drive from the president's official residence, at least 15 retailers sell the set-top boxes for as little as S$100. Many storefronts advertise that these boxes can stream content otherwise unavailable in Singapore.
Mr Ken Lee, a salesman, said his store sells 10 to 20 boxes on a typical weekend. During major electronics fairs, sales can reach 300 a day, he said.
Mr Lee said he tells buyers there's nothing unlawful about using the devices. Since the boxes aren't downloading copies of programmes, they aren't violating copyright laws, he said.
Unblocktech didn't respond to requests for comment. EVPad said in an e-mail that customers decide which apps to download, and it cannot be held responsible.
The industry's efforts include lobbying the Singapore government to eliminate any confusion about legal uses of the devices and to make it easier to take legal action against companies offering pirated content, said Mr John Medeiros, Hong Kong-based chief policy officer for CASBAA, the coalition's parent organisation.
"We continue to engage with the industry on their concerns in relation to the popularity of devices that connect televisions to access online content," Singapore's Intellectual Property Office said.
The coalition also wants Singapore to block streams of illegal content from entering the country. Last year, the country blocked one website for offering illegal downloads.
Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam said in August that Singapore has "a strong intellectual-property regime which protects innovations comprehensively and effectively".
The next month, the World Economic Forum ranked Singapore fourth out of 137 countries for protecting intellectual property rights.
Coalition members Sony Pictures Television Networks Asia and Viacom International Media Networks declined to comment. Walt Disney Co. and HBO Asia didn't respond to requests for comment.
"This new coalition adds to our efforts to protect the legitimate rights and interests of the NBA and our partners," said Ms Ayala Deutsch, executive vice-president and deputy general counsel for the league, which earns US$2.6 billion annually in broadcast rights from US-based networks alone.
The English Premier League, which generates at least 1 billion pounds (S$1.82 billion) a year from international media rights, is "currently investigating" suppliers of pirated content in Asia after helping Thai authorities break up an illegal streaming operation there. Games are available in Singapore with a subscription.
"The Premier League is currently engaged in its most comprehensive global anti-piracy programme," it said. "This includes supporting our broadcast partners in South-east Asia with their efforts to prevent the sale of illicit streaming devices."