Citation(2012) 24 SAcLJ 16
Published date01 December 2012
Date01 December 2012

Revisiting RecordTV v MediaCorpTV *

Taking the Singapore Court of Appeal's Decision in RecordTV Pte Ltd v MediaCorp TV Singapore Pte Ltd[2011] 1 SLR 830, this article seeks to argue that the copyright fair dealing defence would have been the more appropriate basis to exempt RecordTV, a digital recording service for recording television programmes, from primary copyright liability. This judicial approach towards legalising digital video recorder (“DVR”) services is more suitable taking into consideration the following: The role and objectives of copyright law in Singapore; the history and development of the fair dealing defence (including the latest amendments pursuant to the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement); the global trends relating to user rights and information technology through a comparative study of similar cases in other jurisdictions; and a policy assessment of Singapore's interests in promoting innovation and development against the backdrop of proprietary copyright protection.

I. Introduction

A. The parties, dispute and outcome

1 In RecordTV Pte Ltd v MediaCorp TV Singapore Pte Ltd1 (“RecordTV”), the first decision of its kind and with significant repercussions for the development of information and communications technology in Singapore, the highest court in Singapore, the Court of Appeal (“CA”) made a statement in its decision delivered on 1 December 2010 in favour of fledgling RecordTV in its dispute with Mediacorp over the treatment of the latter's free-to-air content by RecordTV's online digital video recorder (“iDVR”). The main service of the iDVR was to allow its registered users (“RUs”) to view Mediacorp programmes at any time beyond its broadcast timeslots. There was no charge for the service.

2 The CA determined that RecordTV did not infringe Mediacorp's rights to duplicate or publicly communicate its programmes, and that furthermore it did not authorise its RUs to do so. It overturned the High Court's (“HC”) decision favouring Mediacorp.2 First, on the issue of copying, both the HC and CA rejected a technical approach to the matter, preferring the view that it was the RU who for all intents and purposes was the relevant primary copyright infringer and did the copying based on their assessment of the RU's control of the activity. Second, on the matter of communication to the public, the CA diverged from the HC and decided that the RU had the power to determine the time and content of the communication and that the transmission of the programmes was not made to the “public”. Third, the CA also concluded that RecordTV did not authorise any copyright infringement by its RUs of MediaCorp's programmes against whom the latter did not bring any action and who were highly unlikely to attract copyright liability in the first place.

B. The global development of the digital video recorder

3 A “digital video recorder” (“DVR”) is often used to refer to an enabled electronic hardware (eg, TiVo and Freeview) or online digital software, that allows the recording of videos in digital format to a storage device. When such a device or service is used to deliver television shows through the World Wide Web (“WWW”) using the internet protocol suite, it is known as internet protocol television (“IPTV”). The service can consist of “live” broadcasts and automatic or on-demand “time-shifted” shows. There is no legal issue when it is

offered by a television company in relation to its own programmes (eg, XinMSN, which is operated in collaboration with Microsoft). However, legal issues arise when it is offered by third parties, commercially or otherwise, even if the shows are offered to the same audience.

4 DVR technology has rapidly evolved from the physical personal consumer electronic device such as the traditional set-top boxes and portable recorders to remote application software services that are the subject of this article.3 Recording devices are now remotely offered and more portable, which is made possible by modern wireless technology and larger internet bandwidths. With this evolution subtle changes have emerged in the manner of their usage and in the relationship between the service provider and the user, which can potentially lead to a shift in control, depending on one's perspective. The difficulty in determining what constitutes relevant control depending on the form of technology and technical operation is particularly an issue in the legal context.

5 Internet digital video recording and hosting services that offer the retransmission of television programmes that have emerged in recent years include Cablevision, Filmon and iviTV in the US, Wizzgo in France and RecordTV in Singapore, all of which have faced legal challenges in court in the respective jurisdictions of operation.

II. Objectives of this article

6 Although the CA reached the right outcome based on policy interest and overarching considerations that take into account the socio—economic utility of technological innovations like DVRs, the authors have some difficulties with the issue of liability being determined on the basis that the RU was the primary infringer and as such RecordTV did not infringe Mediacorp's copyright in its television programmes.4

7 In the authors' view, the CA actually had an alternative route to take on the matter that would have led to the same conclusion, even if the court had made a finding of copyright infringement against RecordTV. On the assumption that primary copyright liability should attach to RecordTV rather than to its RUs, as it was determined by the CA, the analysis in this article will focus on the relevance, applicability and suitability of the fair dealing defence to the facts of this case in order to protect RecordTV and similar types of technology from copyright liability and hence meet the ultimate objective, which is to accommodate such technological innovations within the copyright framework. In the course of this analysis, the policy arguments made by the CA in favour of modern technology (and DVRs in particular) will be revisited as more relevant considerations under the fair dealing defence. In brief, this article will proceed to examine the potential for a similar outcome through the defence of fair dealing.

8 The HC had held that RecordTV could not rely on any safe harbour or the fair dealing provision under Pt IXA and s 109 of the Copyright Act5 respectively to avoid liability for copyright infringement.6 Unfortunately, as the CA decided that there was no infringement by RecordTV to begin with, there was no necessity for them to determine the issue of reliance on those exemption provisions.7 However, based on their approach to the issue and the outcome of the CA's decision, it would have been possible for the court to reverse the HC judge's holding with regard to the fair dealing assessment in favour of RecordTV as well.

9 In order to show how fair dealing in its inception and evolution is most suitable as a vehicle of change and an instrument of balancing interests as well as to understand its role and function within the context of the copyright regime, we will begin by tracing its history, objective and amendments in the Singapore context as well as briefly examine its birth and development in other countries, in particular, its relationship with the US fair use doctrine.

10 A comparative analysis of the copyright statutory and case law developments – in relation to the doctrine and the advocacy for stronger user rights in its application to cases – in the US and Canada will then be made. The expansive fair use defence has been used in relation to similar forms of digital recording technology and services in the US. In Canada, the landmark Canadian Supreme Court case of CCH v Law Society of Upper Canada8

will be considered for its user-centric approach, which appears to be the trend in the context of narrower fair dealing provisions that are available in other common law jurisdictions. The approaches taken in the courts in those countries will be relevant and persuasive in our courts for several reasons, including the shared legal systems and legislative history and due to the fact that Singapore's fair dealing provision has evolved from a narrow purpose specific defence to a general one modelled after the US fair use provision.

11 Finally, a transposition of the law and reasoning of the relevant cases as well as the more liberal user and techno-centric approach to the local context will be proposed, which would have led to the same outcome in RecordTV but through what will be argued as a different but more appropriate process given the history and development of copyright law as a whole and the objectives and expansion of the fair dealing defence in particular (with its relevance for the future development of new technology in Singapore). Some peripheral issues such as the possible impediment that the Berne three-step test may pose will also be dealt with to explain and justify the appropriateness of the defence in this context. In the course of this analysis, useful comparisons between DVR technology and subsisting physical analogues will be made to support this position wherever applicable.

III. Applying fair dealing to RecordTV v MediaCorpTV

A. History, development and expansion

(1) The history of copyright and the statutory fair dealing and fair use exceptions

12 The modern copyright regime developed from the laws of England about 270 years ago,9 and has been transposed into the laws of other countries through cases and statutes and harmonised to some extent through international and regional conventions.10

13 “Fair dealing” is a section of copyright law of many Commonwealth jurisdictions that provides exclusions to copyright infringement so that others are allowed to use copyrighted works without first seeking permission, but only in certain purpose specific ways. It was created by case law and subsequently codified in statute.11 Each...

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