Set-top boxes soon to be illegal; netizens slam telcos for expensive subscription fees

The sale of set-top boxes that offer access to pirated movies and TV shows will soon be made illegals, according to proposed changes to the Copyright Act tabled in Parliament on Tuesday (6 July),

The amendments, proposed by the Ministry of Law (MinLaw), plugs gaps to make it more difficult for retailers to evade legal action and are part of efforts to strengthen the copyright in Singapore.

The proposed amendments mean that the owners of rights to shows or movies can take legal action against retailers of these set-top boxes. Individuals could be fined up to S$100,000 or jailed u to five years or both while companies can be fined up to S$200,000.

Beyond that, the proposed amendments also apply to commercial dealings of works that infringe copyright via devices or services, including offers to sell such works.

Essentially, rights owners can sue retailers who offer pirated content or even access to pirated content via devices or software. The offender could be ordered to stop sales of such devices and content or compensate the rights owners for losses suffered.

It was noted by MinLaw that the Copyright Act as it stands does not account for recent technological developments such as set-top boxes of streaming devices.

“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 was quoted as saying to The Straits Times.

The ambiguity is what retailers could take advantage of to make a profit from selling such devices while consumers are often misled into thinking that the content they are accessing is legal, said the spokesman.

In some cases, consumers even pay a subscription fee which they believe goes to the rights holders of the content.

The spokesperson noted that content providers, cable broadcasters and associations representing them have raised such issues to the Ministry before, highlighting the many ways that these devices have been sold and marketed.

They added that whole court action has been taken against some retailed in the past, it “remains unclear, given the lack of explicit provisions on this issue” whether the Copyright Act can be applied to different scenarios.

The proposed amendments to the Act would also hold retailers accountable even if they sell “clean” devices without streaming apps pre-installed but do offer to load them in for an extra fee or include instructions on how to do it.

Retailers also would not be allowed to install such apps into a customer’s other devices like a smart TV which would enable them to watch pirated shows.

MinLaw noted the changes are meant “to encourage consumption of copyright works from legitimate sources”.

Other proposed changes are aimed at protecting creators. For example, one proposed amendment would allow creators of photographs, portraits, engravings, sound recordings and films to be the default first owners of the copyright, even if the work was commissioned.

At the moment, the party that commissions the work holds ownership by default.

With this change, creators are essentially placed in the same level as originators of other commissions works who have copyright ownership right from the start. However, a creator’s copyright ownership can be contractually waived.

MinLaw noted that most of the provisions could kick in by November if the bill of amendments to the Copyright Act is passed in Parliament.

Following the announcement of the proposed amendments, many netizens on the and The Straits Times Facebook pages pointed out how the reason such devices are popular is that local TV providers are too expensive.

Some even pointed out the “monopoly” these providers have on the market.

Others complained that the content available from local providers are unsatisfactory.

A couple of people noted that one way to curb piracy is to make content more accessible for consumers.

Some noted that the timing of this is convenient and that there’s usually pressure from “monopoly companies” for the government to crack down on piracy.

Several netizens sarcastically said the government should extend the ban to “empty” laptops, smartphones and computers as well since those devices also be used to access pirated content and software.

One person also noted that the punishment for infringing the Copyright Act seems harsher than other more serious crimes.

While another asked who was really to blame for this given that the boxes were allowed to be imported in the first place.

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