The proposed amendments to the Copyright Act by the Ministry of Law are a step in the right direction in the fight against online copyright infringement. The protection of intellectual property has been a problem which has plagued the creative community for a long time. We welcome the Government's move to create the right environment for the creative community to produce more content, and address the piracy problem.
A recent study by research consultancy Sycamore on the digital habits of 900 Singaporeans showed that seven out of 10 young Singaporeans are pirating movies, music and television programmes. This is a clear indication of a lackadaisical attitude with regard to the issue of copyright infringement. People don't think they are hurting the local industry, and they do it because they can get away with it.
The popular perception is that Singapore's film industry is very insular, and that local movies, which create jobs for actors, directors, crew and editors, are usually not pirated. It is also believed that the industry has very little economic impact. Such misconceptions are hurting the local industry.
Shaw and Cathay are local organisations whose bread-and-butter business is cinema exhibition. Golden Village is not a local company, but it too has created a lot of jobs for Singaporeans over the years, and continues to do so. All three also have movie distribution businesses which have helped many Singaporean film companies recover some of the cost of production.
Singaporeans are fond of their movie experience. The country boasts of one of the world's highest per capita cinema attendance rates at around 4.2 visits per person per year. With more than 200 venues islandwide equipped with world-class screens, movie formats and theatres to suit every budget and taste, Singaporeans can catch the latest blockbuster pretty much on their doorstep.
As cinema exhibitors, Cathay Cineplexes, Shaw Cinemas and Golden Village have worked hard, and invested a lot of money, to ensure that the cinema-goer gets the best possible experience. And yet all that cannot compete when criminals offer movies free online, making money from products that they did not create.
Illegal downloading and streaming of movies does not only hurt the cinema exhibitors. It also has a crippling effect on smaller, independent film producers that are more likely to feel the economic pinch of illegal downloads as box office returns are dampened. The results are far-reaching, as investors shy away from backing local films likely to be leaked.
The easy availability of copyright infringing content online can be seen in the case of KL Gangsters 2, starring Singaporean actor Aaron Aziz. The movie was leaked and downloaded online a month before the release on the big screen. It is time we shut the gate on illegal content in Singapore. It is hurting livelihoods.
Singapore ranks way up the scale of per capita illegal downloading. In March 2012, Mr K. Shanmugam, Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs, pointed out that Singapore ranked worst out of 15 countries in the Asia Pacific with 0.8 per capita incidents of infringement per annum. In January this year, 8 Days magazine ran an article illustrating the fact that Singapore recorded an average of about 300,000 illegal downloads a month.
Where is all the illegal content coming from?
Rogue websites such as The Pirate Bay facilitate the illegal distribution of copyrighted products such as movies, music and television programmes. They exist solely for the direct financial benefit of those that operate them, rather than for any benevolent "sharing" of other people's valuable content with the masses.
Indeed, the latter argument is little more than a clever smokescreen for an extremely profitable online advertising business. During the February 2009 criminal trial of The Pirate Bay in Stockholm, Sweden, it was found that the site's overheads were an estimated US$110,000 (S$137,000). Yet the owners made more than US$1.4 million from advertising revenues alone (a stunning 1,272 per cent illegal profit margin!).
We are all for seeing the Internet as the natural hub for creativity and innovation. But when rogue websites are left unsanctioned to distribute hundreds of thousands of movies, television shows and songs at their whim - none of which they own or have any legal rights to - then perhaps the Internet is not working as it should.
No-one is under the illusion that preventing rogue websites from being accessed in Singapore will solve piracy. There is no silver bullet to this problem. However, measures such as the judicial relief being introduced by the Government have been successfully adopted in other parts of the world.
The responsibility now must be on creating a sustainable and consumer-driven commercial marketplace where artists and the work of copyright holders are respected.
As exhibitors of popular movies, we are happy to see the legitimate online market continue to evolve and expand as a complement to our big screen experience. But we need a level playing field where we do not have to compete with theft on a mass scale.
Singapore needs to move away from being a country that participates in piracy on a rampant scale to one that appreciates and contributes to the mo-vie value chain.
And the initiative to do this needs to be taken now if we are to become a leading digital economy which values its creative industries.
The first writer is CEO of Golden Village Multiplex, the second is CEO of Cathay Cineplexes, while the third is Executive Vice-President, Shaw Organisation.
This article was published on April 10 in The Straits Times.
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