SINGAPORE - From Saturday (July 24), those using illegal set-top boxes that can stream free pirated movies and television shows will be able to exchange them at a discount for non-infringing ones to watch legitimate content offered by StarHub.
Users will have to pay a flat subscription fee of $30 a month to watch legal content. StarHub said this includes TV series and blockbuster films from Disney+ and HBO Go.
However, whether this move will be successful could depend on whether consumers believe StarHub’s offering is value for money, compared with other legal offerings and the free but illegal alternatives, according to consumers and legal experts.
StarHub’s deal is a new promotion by the local telco in an attempt to fight digital piracy and make legal options more attractive price-wise.
Under the exchange offer at selected StarHub shops, the telco will give customers $120 to pay off the usual $5 a month fee customers pay for renting its StarHub TV+ set-top box for two years, the length of the subscription contract.
After that, box rental fees will kick in.
While access to HBO Go content under the plan lasts for the two-year contract period, the free Disney+ access will end on Feb 22, 2023.
Current users of StarHub's set-top box, who pay the monthly box rental fees and content subscription fees, will not have their rental fees waived.
But if their StarHub plan is up for renewal, they can choose to switch and sign up for the new set-top box rental-free plan.
Mr Johan Buse, the chief of StarHub's consumer business group, said the latest deal is aimed at encouraging consumers to ditch their illegal set-top boxes.
This comes after recent proposals to update the Copyright Act to strengthen the copyright regime here.
But the expected changes to the law are not focused on going after consumers of pirated content - they are geared towards businesses that enable people to do so.
Proposals tabled in Parliament by the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) earlier this month seek to make the sale of set-top boxes that offer access to pirated online streams illegal. If passed in Parliament, they are expected to kick in from November.
The criminal penalties are also clearly spelt out, unlike now, where it depends on the situation. If found guilty under the proposed amendments, individuals found guilty of selling the illegal boxes 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.
Currently, and for years now, 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.
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.
But the Copyright Act has other provisions to address the issue of people watching copyright-infringing content.
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, said Mr Alban Kang, a partner at law firm Bird & Bird ATMD’s intellectual property and technology group.
He said that watching streamed video from unauthorised sources might not be illegal for consumers in Singapore under certain circumstances.
This is due to how streaming can work, in which only a fraction of a video is downloaded and shown to users at any one time, before it is removed from the device. This means that the user does not download the entire video or keep it on his device.
For instance, if the stream downloads only a few seconds' to a few minutes' worth of content from a two-hour-long movie at any one time, it might not be considered a substantial copying of the movie and thus not infringing on copyright.
But if the stream downloads much more of the movie, such as to provide a smoother streaming experience without stuttering, it could be substantial enough to be a copyright infringement if it is from an illegal source.
Even if the streaming is found to be illegal, there are practical and cost considerations for the video rights owners to take action against consumers, said Mr Kang.
This could factor into whether consumers will consider if they should make the switch from illegal streaming to legitimate options such as StarHub’s, he added.
Also, there is the issue of whether consumers believe StarHub’s offer is worth it.
“It’s a good move by StarHub to try to encourage legal streaming,” said Mr Kang.
"But how successful it will be is dependent on whether the telco offers content that is value for money and what consumers are looking for.”
He added that StarHub’s two-year lock-in contract period might not be acceptable to some consumers used to subscriptions like those for Netflix, which are on a shorter monthly basis.
Consumers like Mr R. Tan, 30, do not believe the new StarHub plan is worth it, even with the $120 carrot.
While he does not use illegal set-top boxes, he does not see the value of the telco’s offering when there are cheaper legal options like standalone Disney+ and Netflix subscriptions that start from about $12 a month each.
He is also not convinced the content available through StarHub is attractive enough.
“Set-top boxes are more for older people who do not know how to access streaming services, so StarHub’s offer is quite obsolete,” said Mr Tan, who is currently unemployed and looking for a job.
For more details on where the illegal set-top boxes can be exchanged for the StarHub one, and information on the offer, visit Starhub's website on Saturday.
The rental-free plan offer ends on Aug 31 and StarHub has advised customers to book an appointment with the telco through the My StarHub app for the box exchange.