SINGAPORE--The government's move to abolish the radio and TV (RTV) license has put in question a user's right to view and copy free-to-air broadcasts, and also casts uncertainty over a recent court ruling involving an online recording service.
Announced last month as part of its 2011 budget, the Singapore government's said license fees were "losing their relevance" with increasing media convergence where anyone can now receive broadcast content over the Internet and mobile devices.
In a statement Tuesday, MDA said it has begun refunding RTV license fees, with 1.1 million cheques to be mailed to residential and non-residential licensees including hotels, offices, retail outlets and vehicle owners.
All refunds will be completed by Apr. 30 this year, according to MDA. Licensees can check the status of their license account online via their SingPass.
First introduced in 1963, RTV license fees in the country were applicable to all households, non-residential premises such as hotels, retail outlets and offices that had TV or radio sets, as well as owners of vehicles with radios.
Fees collected, which amounted to S$132.5 million (US$104.8 million) in 2009, were used to fund public service broadcast content including local products and drama series that aired on free-to-air channels in English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil.
In his blog post last month, ZDNet Asia blogger Bryan Tan noted that the abolishment means the Singapore government is no longer in charge of the license mechanism to determine who is authorized to revive MediaCorp broadcasts and, consequently, make copies of the content.
Tan, a lawyer who specializes in technology law and runs his own practice, Keystone Law, said this latest development suggests two different scenarios: that everyone is now authorized to receive and copy free-to-air broadcasts, or that MediaCorp is "now the gatekeeper who is authorized to view and copy its broadcasts".
"Lawyers around town were scrambling to weigh the effect of the [removal of the RTV license] on the MediaCorp versus RecordTV case," he added.
This lawsuit involved an online service, offered by RecordTV, that allows registered users to record and view free-to-air programs including MediaCorp's Channel 5, Channel 8 and Channel NewsAsia on their personal computers. The national broadcaster had alleged that RecordTV breached its copyright and ordered it to terminate the service.
Singapore's Court of Appeal found in favor of the online service provider, weighing its judgment on the fact that Singaporeans owned RTV license. It also made references to the country's Copyright Act regarding content ownership.
Court of Appeal rulings are final and cannot be further challenged.
Asked if MediaCorp plans to initiate a new lawsuit following the removal of the RTV license, the broadcaster's head of corporate communications and marketing, Clarence Pong, said: "MediaCorp will need to carefully consider the impact of the abolishment."
Impact on Copyright Act
The Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA), which issued the RTV license, clarified that the license addressed a licensee's right to own a TV or radio, and not his right to consume free-to-air content.
Yuvarani Thangavelu, deputy director of licensing policy with the government agency, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that the authority is "not in a position" to comment on whether the abolishment of the RTV license will result in any possible changes to the country's Copyright Act, which is under the purview of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (Ipos).
Thagavelu further explained: "TV licenses were issued under the Broadcasting Act for the ownership of TV sets in Singapore.
"The Copyright Act does not contain any reference to TV licenses, therefore, Singaporeans' rights to view free-to-air programmes are not affected by the abolition of TV licenses. It also does not affect the rights of individuals to make recordings for private and domestic use."
When contacted, an Ipos spokesperson said it is currently reviewing the RecordTV judgment in consultation with other relevant agencies. Asked if the act encompasses free-to-air content, she said: "Generally, free-to-air TV broadcasts such as those on MediaCorp channels are covered under the Copyright Act."
Tan said the RecordTV ruling stated MediaCorp had been granted a broadcasting license. Under this, it is required to provide free-to-air shows to license holders who have the right to make copies of the content, he explained.
"So the court has clarified their view of the legal position. MDA is correct in pointing out that the Copyright Act (s114) does not even relate to RTV license holders," he said. "For example, it would relate to pay TV subscribers making recordings for private and domestic use of shows they had subscribed to."
Tan added that future lawsuits involving online services similar to that offered by RecordTV would have to be analyzed against the evolving regulatory landscape.
No different from VCR
Leo Hsiu Yun, a marketing executive based in Singapore, said consumers like her should be allowed to continue recording free-to-air programs since they have long been able to do so via VHS (video home system), and more recently with DVD recorders and other devices such as HubStation, offered by local cable TV operator, StarHub. The system is a set-top box that comes with an inbuilt hard-disk, enabling users to digitally record 160 hours of programming, and dual tuner which allows its customers to watch one channel while recording another.
"We used to record shows all the time," Leo said. "Online services such as those offered by RecordTV are no different from services enabled by devices such as HubStation and our own VCRs (video cassette recorders)."
She added that it would be "in the public's interest" if the abolishment of the RTV license now has no impact on RecordTV or other similar online services.
"Until such a time it is proven that not paying an RTV license means not having anymore free-to-air content, I think it should remain status quo. Having these online services that records free-to-air is just another convenient way for us to consume TV programmes," she said.
According to Ang Peng Hwa, director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre at Nanyang Technological University, the RecordTV court ruling was "very heartening" because it indicated the Singapore court was aware of the potential long-term harm in taking the literal view. Here, the court adopted the view that there was no commercial loss to MediaCorp, Ang said, noting that his views are personal and do not necessarily reflect Singapore's legal position
"It may be different if RecordTV had somehow stripped out the advertisements in MediaCorp and replaced them with its own, which has happened in other countries' broadcasting systems," he said.
Asked for his insights on the issue, Ang said: "The key is whether there is loss of revenue by MediaCorp and, as a corollary, whether the person or company recording [the content] somehow makes money from the content. If the recording is for personal use, or what is called time-shifting, the issue of copyright of content should not arise."
Time-shifting refers to the recording of TV or radio programmes to a storage device so the content can be replayed at a time more convenient to the consumer.
Ang noted that over the last few years, the free use of content has been increasingly restricted, due in part to commercial drivers. This, however, brings up challenges in the longer term such as piracy, he said.
"The concern is that if you look at the current 'hubs' of copyright and other intellectual property, they developed as havens of piracy of one form or another. In Switzerland, the pharmaceutical companies, which began as the barons in the township, copied the pharmaceuticals developed elsewhere. In the United States, printers rowed out in boats to get the first copies of Charles Dickens' books so they could reprint and sell them.
"Today, the question is that if you were to crack down on every breach of copyright, would you stifle your own creativity and path to innovation?" he said.