Some local movie buffs who illegally downloaded Hollywood film Dallas Buyers Club on file-sharing services received a rude shock over the weekend.
In their postbox was a lawyer’s letter asking for a written offer of damages and costs within three days of receiving the letter for downloading the film.
Local law firm Samuel Seow Law Corporation said it had been engaged by Dallas Buyers Club LLC, the company behind the film, to take action against people who had downloaded it illegally.
Mr Seow said in an e-mail: “Our clients are aggrieved by the illegal downloading and/or unlawful reproductions of their Oscar-winning movie Dallas Buyers Club in Singapore, and have instructed us to initiate legal action against illegal downloaders.
“(They) fully intend to protect and defend their copyright in the movie and shall take all necessary actions to protect the same.”
The 2013 film, based on the true story of an American’s search for drugs to treat HIV in the mid 80s, won three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Matthew McConaghey and Best Supporting Actor for Jared Leto.
Mr Seow said his firm had issued letters of demand to some of the infringers identified by their clients and will continue to do so.
The three telcos here confirmed that they had received demands to reveal information on their subscribers.
M1’s assistant general manager, corporate communications, Mr Chua Hian Hou, said it had to comply after a hearing in the High Court attended by lawyers for Dallas Buyers Club LLC and M1 in January.
“After hearing the parties, the Assistant Registrar of the High Court granted an order compelling M1 to disclose the names, NRIC numbers and physical addresses of the affected customers to Dallas Buyers Club LLC. M1 has accordingly complied with this order.”
NOT AT FIRST
Mr Chua said M1 did not provide any personal data of the affected customers when the information was first requested.
“As a responsible Internet service provider, M1 takes the confidentiality of our customers’ personal data very seriously and ensures that we comply with all relevant privacy requirements including the Personal Data Protection Act.
“Accordingly, we would not freely or voluntarily share our customers’ personal data with a copyright owner without our customers’ consent, unless compelled to do so through a court order.”
StarHub’s assistant vice-president, corporate communications, Ms Caitlin Fua, said the telco was in the process of complying after receiving a High Court order to provide details of some customers based on particular IP addresses.
A Singtel spokesman said his company has not given out any customer details yet, adding: “Protecting our customers’ information is very important to us and the matter is before the courts. We have appointed external lawyers to represent us but we are required by law to comply with a formal court order.”
The three telcos and Mr Seow declined to reveal the number of people who have been identified for downloading the film.
Intellectual property and technology lawyer Han Wah Teng said these people may have to pay the copyright owner up to $10,000 for statutory damages.
This is not the first time illegal downloaders have been targeted in Singapore.
In 2007, local anime distributor Odex won court orders to get SingNet and StarHub to disclose names of subscribers allegedly downloading Japanese animated movies.
The culprits were mostly students, with one illegal downloader as young as nine.
It remains to be seen if such crackdowns are a deterrent.
A 23-year-old administrative officer who downloads about two movies a week from file-sharing sites said: “I’m not too worried. After all, they are only targeting people who download that movie, right?"
Lawsuits filed in US and Australia
The firm behind Dallas Buyers Club filed copyright infringement lawsuits against illegal downloaders in the US and Australia last year.
The IP addresses of illegal downloaders of the movie were identified using a German software programme, reported US technology media website CNet.
In February last year, the firm filed a lawsuit against 31 anonymous Internet users who allegedly downloaded the movie just a day before its DVD release date on Feb 4.
In the US state of Colorado, more than 300 people are facing lawsuits. If found liable, each of them could face a US$150,000 (S$200,000) fine, or they could choose to settle for $8,000.
In other US states, people have been asked to settle for sums between $3,500 and $7,000.
In Australia, the firm took an Australian Internet service provider to court to gain access to customer records matching a list of more than 4,000 IP addresses found downloading the movie.
Such civil suits against individuals are uncommon because of the backlash the company will face as well as issues of privacy, said intellectual property and technology lawyer Han Wah Teng.
Mr Han said: "It is unfortunate that in this day and age, there are still individuals who expect to get away with illegal downloads. And these are the ones who would often not have access to proper legal advice and representation.
"The problem (of copyright infringement) will not go away. It makes more sense for the copyright owners to go after the people behind the websites who are facilitating the illegal downloads."
This article was first published on April 7, 2015.
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