US firm denies accusations of profiteering from downloaders

Dallas Buyers Club stars Jared Leto (left) and Matthew McConaughey

Voltage Pictures, the copyright owner of the Oscar-winning film Dallas Buyers Club, has denied accusations of profiteering by targetting consumers here for alleged piracy.

The Hollywood producer has been criticised since last weekend, after its local representative Samuel Seow Law Corporation began sending letters to Internet users here demanding offers of compensation for downloading and sharing the movie illegally.

Lawyer Robert Raj Joseph of Samuel Seow Law Corp told The Straits Times that Voltage Pictures was not trying to profiteer.

He said that Voltage was merely trying to put a stop to rampant piracy, which affects the earnings of its producers and actors.

"They need to take a stance; they are not a big producer and their profits have been significantly reduced," said Mr Robert.

The move has led many netizens to stand in solidarity with the illegal downloaders.

Demand letters have so far been sent to 77 M1 broadband subscribers, with more expected to go out after the law firm receives subscriber details from Singtel and StarHub. The three Internet service providers (ISPs) were ordered by the High Court to release customer details earlier this year.

Netizens have swarmed online forums like Hardwarezone to accuse the production studio of threatening to litigate for a potential windfall.

Voltage has also gone after illegal downloaders in the United States and Australia. On Tuesday, an Australian court ordered six ISPs to release details of customers linked to more than 4,700 Internet protocol addresses which shared the Dallas Buyers Club online.

"If the company is really not going after the money but is standing up for the principle, it should come out with a more conciliatory gesture," said a retiree, who spoke to The Straits Times on condition of anonymity. "Most would have expected some kind of cease-and-desist warning rather than a demand for compensation on the very first infringement."

A 50-year-old Singtel subscriber, who is anxiously monitoring his mailbox for the demand letter, questioned why Voltage did not go after piracy websites instead.

"The end user does not have the financial means to fight in court," said the administrator, who declined to be named.

Under Singapore's amended Copyright Act, which came into force last August, Voltage could seek a High Court order to get ISPs to block piracy websites.

Meanwhile, netizens have banded together on online forums to organise a meeting to discuss the settlement amount - which was not stated in the letter - and the legal options of those targeted.

Samuel Seow Law Corp said that it has already received and accepted "a number" of settlement offers. If the matter goes to court, several lawyers The Straits Times spoke to said that Voltage might be ordered to provide a "security for costs" that could run into the millions - a potential deterrent.

Security for costs is provided via a banker's guarantee, which companies like Voltage might have to pay for if defence lawyers ask for it. This normally happens when the firm filing the lawsuit is not based in Singapore, and when the defendants want to ensure that their legal costs are covered if the plaintiff loses the suit.

"The security for costs sought could potentially run into the millions if a substantial number of the defendants decided to pursue such applications," said Mr Lakshanthi Fernando, disputes lawyer and director at Holborn Law LLC.

Digital media lawyer Matt Pollins, of Olswang, said: "Security for costs could certainly present a deterrent."

Intellectual property lawyer Cyril Chua of ATMD Bird & Bird said that subscribers who were wrongfully threatened with a demand letter could also mount a lawsuit against Voltage Pictures for "groundless threat of infringement".

This article was first published on April 11, 2015.
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