FAQs: TV streaming devices - are they legal in Singapore?

FAQs: TV streaming devices - are they legal in Singapore?

The Netflix logo is pictured on a television remote. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

SINGAPORE: The use of streaming devices, specifically TV boxes, to consume content is back in the spotlight, after a study released on Tuesday (Sep 14) said these devices are “changing the face of piracy” in Singapore.

According to the study, 14 per cent of respondents admitted to using such a device, leading the chief policy officer of Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA) to say that the admitted use of such TV boxes is “much greater” in Singapore than in other developed markets such as the United States and the United Kingdom.

A Jun 5 press release by CASBAA also stated that following police action against networks operating through illicit streaming devices in Thailand, an estimated 50,000 consumers in Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia and other places lost service despite having pre-paid “substantial amounts” for the Expat.tv services.

So is the use of such devices, and the streaming services that come with them, allowed in Singapore? We pose some of these questions to industry professionals.

Q: Are these streaming devices, also known as grey or Android boxes, legal in Singapore?

The short answer: Yes.

The use of such streaming devices to access legitimate content does not constitute copyright infringement, an Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS) spokesperson told Channel NewsAsia.

However, based on past incidents, if the streaming device offers to unscramble signals used by pay TV operators here to deliver content, that is an offence.

For instance, in 2013, hundreds of illegal set-top boxes that claimed to be able to scramble StarHub’s TV content were seized following a raid on a storage facility. The pay TV operator subsequently commenced legal action against two men Foo Yong Chun Shaun and Chen Wenqiang Daniel, who were charged under the Broadcasting Act and faced up to three years’ jail, a fine up to S$40,000, or both, if convicted.

Q: Are consumers allowed to view content from the streaming apps/services on these devices?

The IPOS spokesperson said rights owners of the content may take civil action for copyright infringement against those who access or download programmes for viewing without authorisation. This includes viewing the content through a computer, mobile device or a device that connects a television to the Internet.

As such, users of these devices should ensure they are accessing content from authorised content providers, he added.

“Needless to say, the courts will decide each action by copyright owners on a case by case basis.”

Mr Andy Leck, managing principal and head of Intellectual Property practice group at law firm Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow, told Channel NewsAsia that retailers have been known to blatantly advertise the pre-loaded apps as being legal when that is not the case.

"Therefore, consumers should watch out for red flags, including whether the pre-loaded applications offer access to a huge range of channels which are identical to the channels offered under legitimate subscription services, at a fraction of the price of legitimate subscriptions," he said.

Q: Any legal recourse if the streaming services on the devices are not working, or stop working after a period of time? 

Mr Leck said depending on the circumstances, the buyers may take legal action against the sellers for "breach of contract on the premise that the purchased goods are not fit for purpose". 

That said, whether the buyers can succeed in claiming for compensation would depend on the sellers' financial credibility, he added.

Consumers may also be able to demand for refunds against the sellers for selling defective goods, or consider lodging complaints to the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) regarding the sellers' potential unfair practices, the lawyer said. 

Q: Is it alright to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access content on these streaming devices?

The law is silent on the use of VPNs. However, using VPNs to knowingly circumvent the technological measure applied to control access to one’s content or works, can be construed as a copyright offence.

The Copyright Act, however, is currently being reviewed, with the Law Ministry saying the review is in view of technological developments in the past decades. Among the list of things to be reviewed include whether the current list of allowable circumventions of technology protection measures should be retained, and what new allowable circumventions should be put in place.

These exceptions relate primarily to government use, or for non-profits and educational institutions, or for conducting research on encryption technology.

Q: Are consumers liable if content rights owners initiate civil action against streaming service providers?

Copyright owners can take legal action against the retailers who deal in streaming devices and/or the streaming service providers, instead of consumers. This is since their conduct in making profit out of pirated content is more blatant, Mr Leck pointed out. 

That said, consumers should be aware that they may face the risk of potential civil infringement under the Copyright Act, which may bring personal liability, the lawyer said. 

For instance, the Court of Justice of the European Union held in April this year, in the case of Stichting Brein v Jack Frederik Wullems (Filmspeler), that the act of streaming content would be an infringement of the copyright holder's exclusive right to reproduction, Mr Leck said. 

This is a position IPOS had taken previously, he noted, as stated in its Copyright @ Home information brochure. The agency had stated: "… when you watch content online via streaming technology, a temporary copy of the programme is made on your computer… reproduction is one of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights…. the temporary copy on your computer infringes copyright… In view of this, you should be careful and check before watching content online.

"If you do not receive a clear and satisfactory response from the people responsible for putting up the content, it is best to avoid watching it."

The same position holds even if the consumer is using a streaming device, instead of from a home computer, to access an infringing online stream, Mr Leck said.

MORE REASONABLE PRICES FOR CONTENT NEEDED

IPOS reiterated that it does not condone piracy, but its spokesperson said the availability of legitimate content at reasonable prices is an “important factor” too.

From the Sycamore study, IPOS noted that the findings revealed the lack of access to legitimate content as a major reason given among respondents for infringing copyright online.

The study showed that among the respondents who said they are actively watching pirated movies, TV shows or sports channels, 31 per cent said the reason is because they can’t find the TV show/series legally that they want to watch, while 28 per cent said the same for movies.

“While we do not condone piracy, we encourage the industry to continue their efforts in making more legitimate content available at competitive prices,” he said.  

Source: CNA/kk