12 December 2017
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Technology has put content pirates ahead of the curve, experts say

TODAY
06 Dec 2017
Valerie Koh

Technology advancements have put purveyors of piracy ahead of the curve, making it more difficult to tackle the issue, said intellectual property lawyers and experts.

Their comments came in the wake of Bloomberg’s report on Monday (Nov 4), in which the Asia-based Coalition Against Piracy called Singapore a haven for piracy of copyrighted programming by media companies such as Walt Disney and HBO.

Set-top boxes – used to stream movies, television shows or sports programmes – have, in the past, decoded encrypted broadcasts offered by Starhub. The sale and distribution of these decoders are illegal under the Broadcasting Act.

However, in the past three to five years, new technologies have allowed pirates to circumvent the law. The latest iteration makes use of apps to access copyrighted content.

“The technology now is different… the set-top boxes do not need to decrypt programming – they merely need to search for the content out there and then stream it. This gives the added advantage of on-demand viewing,” said Mr Bryan Tan, a partner at Pinsent Masons law firm.

Mr Roger Harvey, a regional director at digital platform security firm Irdeto, said pirates have been able to offer set-top boxes at low prices, adapting to new technologies and consumer demand with “speed, unhindered by rules and regulations”.

Advancements in technology, increasing broadband availability and the ease of buying these devices have fueled their popularity, he added.

“Although the devices themselves are not illegal in their own right, their open nature makes it simple for the pirates to exploit,” he said.

Pay-TV operators Starhub and Singtel said piracy and the popularity of illicit streaming devices are growing in Singapore.

“(It) is alarming and runs counter to Singapore’s ambitions to be a Smart Nation... we urge our government partners to work even closer with us to uphold the legal rights of content owners,” said a Starhub spokesperson.

Piracy and illicit streaming devices are tantamount to theft and present a “serious threat” to the creative industry, the spokesperson added.

Singtel’s spokesperson said: “It is a problem that requires urgent attention and concerted action from all parties in the ecosystem, including content owners, service providers, the public, as well as regulators and authorities.”

In the past, there have been attempts to clamp down on sellers – specifically, for set-top boxes working as decoders.

In May 2014, two men were charged under the Broadcasting Act for dealing in illegal set-top boxes. A total of 233 boxes were seized in a police raid, weeks after Singtel expressed displeasure over illegal set-top boxes allowing illegal access to English Premier League broadcasts, which both Singtel and Starhub shared.

However, the set-top boxes nowadays that use apps to stream content do not have decoders and are considered legal.

The Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS) reaffirmed its stance that only such devices with decoding capabilities are illegal.

“Our position has not changed. The devices highlighted in (the 2014 incident) were designed to decode encrypted broadcast signals, allowing users full access to TV programmes without paying subscription fees. In such a scenario, copyright infringement is an issue as the devices were used in a manner that is illegal,” it told TODAY.

It also told Bloomberg that copyright infringement was “not so much” about a device or technology but, rather, the manner in which these were being used.

While consumers are encouraged to access content from authorised content providers, IPOS also highlighted a recent study by market researcher Sycamore, which pointed towards a lack of access to legitimate content as a reason for copyright infringement. It urged industry players to make more legitimate content available at “competitive prices”.

The Sycamore study, commissioned by industry group Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (Casbaa) found that two in five in Singapore actively access pirated content.

But Mr Neil Gane, general manager of the Casbaa Coalition Against Piracy, voiced concerns over the “overt sales” of set-top boxes in malls and IT fairs. This, he said, is rarely seen “in such volume” in other parts of the region.

“What are predominantly sold in Sim Lim Square and at Singapore’s many IT exhibitions are illicit streaming devices preloaded with piracy enabling applications. They are not ‘empty’ and therefore ‘legal’ boxes,” he said.

The courts in countries such as United Kingdom and United States have recognised the sale of these devices – preloaded with applications allowing for access to pirated content – as illegal, he added.

Amica Law director Jason Chan said apart from clamping down on pirates, industry players must also “provide a means for the public to turn their attention away from pirated content to legitimate content”.

“Even if you stop these boxes, something else will come up. Going after the boxes is only a limited solution. The pirates will come up with another way,” he said.

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