Debrief: Penalties on selling illegal streaming set-top boxes in S'pore to be clarified soon

Action can be taken against retailers who offer pirated music, shows or software through not just devices beyond set-top boxes but also software applications.
Action can be taken against retailers who offer pirated music, shows or software through not just devices beyond set-top boxes but also software applications.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

What's the story

Changes to the law were proposed in Parliament last week to clarify what the penalties are for shops selling set-top boxes that allow consumers to access pirated online streams of movies and television shows.

Currently, the penalties depend on the situation.

If found guilty under the proposed amendments, individuals can be fined up to $100,000, jailed up to five years, or both.

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

The changes to the Copyright Act were tabled in Parliament by the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) to boost the copyright regime here.

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 suggested amendments cover more than just 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 action can be taken against retailers who offer pirated music, shows or software - or access - through not just devices beyond set-top boxes but also software applications.

The 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 foul of the law.

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

The errant shops can be sued by owners with rights to the shows or movies. In such civil lawsuits, the offender could be ordered to stop sales or compensate the rights owners if they suffered losses.

Why it matters



Android TV boxes for sale at Sim Lim Square in 2019. Selling set-top boxes that offer access to pirated online streams of movies and television shows will soon be outlawed. PHOTO: ST FILE

For years, it has not been clear what the penalties are for retailers who sell the offending set-top boxes. This is partly because it is not even clear if such boxes infringe the current Copyright Act.

The issue is that the law now does not take into account set-top boxes and other recent technological developments such as streaming devices or services that let people access content from illegal sources.

A MinLaw spokesman explained that Singapore's 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 could be successfully taken.

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 wrongly led to believe that the device's subscription charges they pay for go to the rights holders.

The illegal streaming boxes can cost a few hundred dollars.

While court actions have been taken in the past, whether or not the copyright law can be applied in all the different situations is still not clear, due to the lack of explicit provisions on the matter, said the spokesman.

Legal experts have said that while public statistics are not readily available, it appears that only one or two legal actions have been taken against retailers.

What lies ahead

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 Alban Kang, a partner at law firm Bird & Bird ATMD's intellectual property and technology group, 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 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.

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