Dear downloader, you could be in trouble

POPULAR: Dallas Buyers Club is a biographical film starring Matthew McConaughey

Just two days ago, Singtel said it had been issued a court order to disclose the identities of subscribers who had allegedly downloaded Oscar-winning film Dallas Buyers Club illegally online.

The Internet Service Provider (ISP) is the latest to have been served the order, after M1 and StarHub.

Singtel now has until the end of the month to disclose subscriber details to Samuel Seow Law Corp, a law firm here which is representing the film's rights holder, Dallas Buyers Club LLC.

The film studio has apparently identified more than 500 Singapore Internet protocol (IP) addresses of subscribers of the three major ISPs here. Of these, more than 150 were Singtel subscribers.

Over the weekend, Samuel Seow Law Corp reportedly started sending letters to these subscribers, asking for a written offer of damages and costs within three days of receiving the letter.

While it is not known how many have responded, the news has set the Internet community abuzz.

There is no precedent in Singapore where a rights holder has taken a large number of infringers to court, and whether Dallas Buyers Club LLC would do so is anyone's guess.

Here are some burning questions about the case and their answers.

1) How can they obtain my IP address?

The IP address of BitTorrent users are publicly available when they seed, a feature of the programme which shares parts of the downloaded files with other BitTorrent downloaders.

"In order for you to seed a file, you must make your IP address known," said Mr Christopher Low, chief technology officer of Internet security company ThinkSecure.

2) Great, so it's all right if I stay away from Torrent and use direct downloads?

Not necessarily, said Mr Low. "They can go after the website owner, then get a court order for an access log of all IP addresses that downloaded the material."

3) Doesn't dynamic IP mean my IP address would have changed by the time they catch my scent?

Not at all, said Mr Low. "Dynamic IP allocation is logged when the server allocates an address. The log can be used to show which user had been allocated the address at the time."

4) It's a good thing that I'm safe hiding behind a proxy, or VPN server, right?

Perhaps, but it is not guaranteed. "They might have more trouble trying to find the downloader, but it's not impossible for the proxy owner to disclose information - you'll never be able to tell if they're reliable," said Mr Low.

5) I just received a letter of demand, can I offer to reimburse the price of a movie ticket?

Mr George Hwang, a lawyer specialising in intellectual property law, said: "Calculations for damages are based on what the copyright owner would have lost, and is both a science and art.

"We would need to get accountants and other experts to work out the estimate.

"The copyright owner could also opt for statutory damages."

This is limited to a maximum of $10,000 for each infringed work.

6) What if I buy a copy of the disc. If I own a copy, will that help my case?

Not if you torrent.

"Whilst the act of copying for self-use can be mitigated by buying the copyrighted works, it is more difficult to justify when you have authorised others to copy (through torrents)," said Mr Hwang.

7) What if I get rid of the evidence, throw my hard drive into the sea?

Destroying physical evidence will not help infringers, said Mr Hwang.

"Having identified the infringer's IP protocol, they already have evidence of the infringement."

8) They can't prove I was the downloader!

Thing is, your guilt need not be proven beyond reasonable doubt, as long as all signs point to you.

Mr Hwang said: "In a civil action, the burden of proof is on the balance of probability."

9) What happens if I ignore the letter?

Nobody can say for sure just how far Dallas Buyers Club LLC's representatives plan to take this case. The last time letters of demand were sent out en masse was in 2007 by animation company Odex, but the resulting payments made to Odex came from settlements out of court.

This article was first published on Apr 10, 2015.
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