Dallas Buyers Club suit a legal minefield

Dallas Buyers Club suit a legal minefield
Cinema still: Dallas Buyers Club.

All eyes are on Hollywood studio Voltage Pictures for its first lawsuit against Internet users in Singapore for illegally sharing its film Dallas Buyers Club.

The last time users' hearts skipped a beat over a similar issue was in 2007, when local anime distributor Odex went after hundreds of illegal downloaders and took a few individuals to court.

But because all the Odex cases were eventually settled out of court, there is no legal precedent to answer the question of whether broadband subscribers in Singapore are liable for acts committed on their Internet accounts.

"This is all fairly new ground, like the Internet," said lawyer Bryan Tan, a technology partner at Pinsent Masons MPillay.

But Voltage's case against Singapore's illegal downloaders has already generated heated discussion on social media.

There are many unanswered questions and there are also concerns that the lawyers acting on behalf of Voltage may have overstepped their ethical boundaries.

Is there a need to establish a link between an impugned Internet account and the actual downloader?

Early last month, Voltage's Singapore representative, Samuel Seow Law Corporation, sent 77 M1 subscribers letters demanding a written offer of damages, failing which they ran the risk of being sued. More letters are expected to be sent to Singtel and StarHub subscribers.

The studio identified more than 500 Singapore Internet protocol (IP) addresses - of Singtel, StarHub and M1 subscribers - at which the movie was allegedly downloaded.

It filed "pre-action discovery" applications against the three Internet service providers (ISPs) in the High Court late last year, and succeeded in compelling the ISPs to release their customers' details.

The issue here is that the demand letter is addressed to the Internet subscriber, who may not be the one who allegedly infringed on the copyright.

This has sparked a heated discussion online over whether the ISPs' lawyers or the courts should have demanded more proof to link the person who infringed copyright to the impugned Internet account.

Subscribers who were wrongfully threatened with a demand letter could mount a lawsuit against Voltage for making groundless threats, but how many can afford to do so?

Are lawyers allowed to threaten downloaders with the possibility of criminal proceedings to further civil claims?

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