Odex's actions against file-sharing
Odex's actions against file sharing were legal actions against Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and their subscribers in Singapore by Odex, a Singapore-based company that virtually distributes sub-licensed Japanese anime. From early 2007 to January 2008 Odex took action against anyone who had downloaded anime through BitTorrent for alleged copyright infringement. Odex tracked their IP addresses without their consent and sought subpoenas to compel the ISPs to disclose the personal details of these subscribers. After rulings from the Subordinate Courts, Odex took personal data from affected ISPs and sent letters demanding payment in place of litigation. More than a third of the individuals contacted by Odex opted to settle out of court for at least S$3,000 (US$2,000) to S$5,000 (US$4,000) each.
The Singaporean anime community considered Odex's actions to be controversial, sudden, and heavy-handed—especially when it was discovered that the youngest person threatened was nine years old. In response, Odex dropped its pay-or-be-sued letter approach in favor of cease-and-desist emails to downloaders. Odex halted active enforcement after its third subpoena was rejected by the courts and lost a lawsuit when trying to obtain customer data from another ISP. In January 2008, Odex appealed the decision, and the High Court of Singapore ruled that one ISP was required to release data, but only directly to Japanese anime studios. Subsequently, these studios started their own legal actions against Singaporean downloaders. Some observers predicted that the High Court's decision would set a precedent for online privacy in Singapore by making it more difficult for copyright licensees to take legal action against downloading. The case raised issues of individual privacy, intellectual property, and free use of the Internet. Odex's actions attracted widespread criticism in Singapore and international attention and press coverage, which coincided with similar actions against consumer file sharing of music in the United States.
Odex is a Singaporean company that licenses and releases anime for local and regional consumption. The company tracked people it believed to be illegally downloading its releases in Singapore, using the method employed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in the United States. Like the RIAA, Odex hired the American tracking company BayTSP to obtain the IP addresses of downloaders from their respective countries and to track them for several months. BayTSP singled out the website AnimeSuki as a major source of the downloads and tracked many of its BitTorrent users. This data was used to apply for subpoenas to compel ISPs to reveal personal information associated with each IP address. In May 2007, the ISP SingNet consented in writing to release personal information about its customers, before Odex's first application against the ISP had its hearing. On 13 August, Odex succeeded in its application against StarHub, which, as a result, was required to reveal the identities of about 1,000 ISP users. However, it is revealed that Starhub didn't revealed any user data to Odex as they were reviewing their rights when Odex lost their appeal to Pacific Internet (PacNet). Odex was represented by law firm Rajah & Tann in all its cases against major ISPs, including its application against PacNet.
After downloading that originated from Singaporean IP addresses had been recorded by BayTSP, Odex sent letters of demand to people associated with the IP addresses it had tracked. The letters requested monetary compensation for downloads of the company's licensed material. The recipients were asked to contact Odex within one week and pay settlement fees from S$3,000 to S$5,000 or face legal action. The recipients also had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, promise to destroy all copies of the downloaded anime, and stop downloading the copyrighted material.
On 9 August 2007, an Odex representative said it intended to obtain search warrants for illegally downloaded anime if necessary. The company initially believed that, unlike in other countries, mere warning letters would not stop the downloads in Singapore. Letters were sent mainly to people who had downloaded more popular series, such as Bleach, D.Gray-man, Fullmetal Alchemist and InuYasha. There was speculation from the online community that the company would collect approximately S$15 million from 3,000 individuals from out-of-court settlements, but Odex responded that it did not require each of them to pay a uniform S$5,000. The main factor it considered when deciding the level of compensation to demand was the amount of downloading by each individual. Odex confirmed that more than 3,000 IP addresses had been disclosed as a result of the court orders, but estimated that the amount collected would cover less than 20% of its enforcement costs. The company's director, Peter Go, subsequently revealed that most of the compensation payments had been paid to BayTSP and to ISPs for the retrieval of their subscribers' personal data. He justified his company's actions by stating that, according to BayTSP's statistics, Singapore had one of the highest rates of illegal anime downloads in the world and that Odex wanted to reduce this by 85%.
On 3 September 2007, Odex director Stephen Sing announced on his company's Internet forum that Odex would no longer send letters of demand to Internet users who had stopped their illegal downloading since the beginning of the enforcement drive. Two weeks later, Odex installed an online warning system developed by BayTSP that generated cease and desist emails intended for the alleged downloaders. The company did not obtain subscribers' information directly from ISPs, but relied on ISPs to forward such emails to their subscribers. Sing vowed that Odex would rely on weekly reports generated by BayTSP to continue its anti-piracy drive, and that it would again resort to legal action if downloaders or their ISPs did not respond acceptably.
On 29 January 2008, the High Court handed down its ruling on Odex's appeal. It held that Pacific Internet had to release the names of the alleged illegal downloaders directly to the Japanese anime studios. In the light of this decision, Peter Go said that the company's role would shift from active enforcement to assisting the studios in their possible courses of action.
The company's actions attracted national media attention and were harshly criticised by the Singaporean anime community as "sudden and severe". Anime fans were outraged by the issuing of legal threats to children as young as nine years old, as they believed children were unable to differentiate between legal and illegal downloading. There were widespread calls in online blogs and forums to boycott Odex's products.
Odex blamed the approximate 70% fall in its Video CD (VCD) and Digital Video Disc (DVD) sales in 2006 and 2007 on illegal downloading. The response of anime fans was that the fall in sales was because Odex's products were inferior, inaccurately translated, and released later than the online versions. Odex subsequently attributed the inaccurate subtitling on censorship laws against mature themes (such as yaoi) and on fansubbers—anime fans who had translated the Japanese dialogue—whom they had hired. In response, the Board of Film Censors said that it did not ask for subtitles to be changed, that it merely classified content, and that the onus was on distributors to ensure accurate subtitles. In addition to problems of quality and scheduling, criticisms were directed at Odex's litigious strategy and poor public relations. Odex received support from the Anti Video Piracy Association of Singapore (AVPAS) in making its demands for compensation.
Stephen Sing was mocked and criticised after posting comments to an online forum which many considered to be gloating. Messages posted by Sing under the nickname "xysing" included "Me too busy suing people" [sic] and "Hahahahah! I double-6-ed so many downloaders serve them right!" Sing was labelled the "most hated man in Singapore's anime community" by members of the blogosphere, a wanted poster with his face circulated online, and he was taunted openly in his office. Sing asserted that threats of arson, assault and even death were made against him and filed a police report. Although he expressed regret over the remarks because they were a "PR disaster" and "very wrong", he said that he had written them while feeling frustrated and did not apologise. He dismissed his "double-6-ed" remark, an expression of joy at the threats of lawsuits, as having been made "two months ago", but it was revealed that they had been made only three weeks earlier. A Sunday Times article condemned these online responses as "propaganda" spread by "lynch mobs" and noted that some of these netizens had revealed the home addresses of Odex's employees. Odex placed a quarter-page advertisement in The Straits Times on 22 August 2007 to explain its actions.
Allegations were made by the online community that Odex had passed off fansubs as its own work. Sing admitted that this was partially true as Odex had hired anime fans to do subtitling in 2004 who had taken "the easy way out and copied word for word the subtitles on fansubs they downloaded". Sing explained that when Odex released its anime, the company did not realise what the anime fans had done, and it has been "paying for this mistake ever since". It was reported at the same time that all of Odex's translation and subtitling was now done "in house". However, Odex's release of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya in September 2007 was found to contain translations strongly resembling an earlier unauthorised fansub release. Emails were also sent to the media saying that Sing and Go were directors and shareholders of a defunct company, Games Mart, that shared the same corporate address as Odex and had been raided in 1999 by the police for selling pirated game consoles. This information was confirmed by the press, and Go wrote a letter to the media explaining that Games Mart was not affiliated with Odex in any way.
Members of an online forum expressed their unhappiness by selling "anti-Odex" T-shirts. Another netizen created a video parody, entitled Xedo Holocaust, and uploaded it to YouTube and other video-sharing websites. A website was established giving details of an "Odex VCD recycling drive", where those who joined could exchange their Odex VCDs for a black awareness ribbon to wear. A protest by a few people with several action figurines took place on 25 August 2007 under intense police scrutiny, which was considered by Western observers to be a rarity in Singapore. An online group, Xedo Defense, was set up to provide support for the downloaders facing legal action. It raised funds to hire a collective lawyer from Infinitus Law Corporation to represent two of the downloaders when suits were filed against them in November 2008 by the anime studios.
There were assertions that Odex had charged 10% interest for settlements paid through an installment plan, but a press release by the company denied that it had required any such interest payments. By September 2007, 105 out of the 300 SingNet subscribers who had received letters had negotiated with and paid Odex, although, in a news conference, Odex said that it had neither forced payment from nor fined anyone. The company explained that it would not profit from the enforcement process and intended to donate to charity any excess amount received. It would also release a financial audit of all the money collected at the close of proceedings. On 31 August 2007, in an attempt to address criticisms of late releases, Odex began to offer video on demand (VOD) on its relaunched website. Users could legally download and unlock a digital rights management (DRM)-protected anime episode at S$2 for seven days.
In mid-November 2007, the cease-and-desist emails initiated by Odex and BayTSP reached several users in Japan, France, and the United States, some in the form of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) notices from their ISPs. Although Odex and BayTSP announced shortly afterwards that the emails were sent out in error, Japanese commentators suggested that the enforcement action was "a step in a right direction". On 21 November 2007, Odex's website was hacked and defaced and the VOD service put out of action. Its main page was replaced by an angry message against the company's legal actions, and experts interviewed by representatives of the local media said that the perpetrator likely was from Singapore.
Odex v. Pacific Internet
Subordinate Courts' decision
On 16 August 2007, Odex initiated legal action against a third Internet Service Provider, Pacific Internet. Odex sought to have Pacific Internet disclose the personal information of about 1,000 subscribers. The closed-door hearing was held on 23 August 2007 in the Subordinate Courts, where District Judge Earnest Lau ruled that Pacific Internet did not have to reveal its subscribers' personal information. Lau believed that Odex was not the correct party to make the application, despite having permission to prosecute on behalf of the Japanese anime studios. The decision came as a surprise to many, and Odex quickly announced its intent to appeal. Although Lau denied Odex the court order, he warned that the right to privacy was no defence for copyright infringement.
In light of the decision, the ISP StarHub, represented by Drew & Napier, said "[we are] assessing our options, given the different decisions rendered by the court". Meanwhile, it was revealed that SingNet had consented to Odex's application, had not instructed its lawyers to attend the hearing, and the two-week deadline for appealing against the application had passed. SingNet's failure to contest Odex's application, perhaps even expediting it, was perceived by some of its subscribers as a voluntary breach of privacy. SingNet later declared that it neither "gave consent" nor assisted Odex in its application for the release of subscriber information, and that its customer subscriptions remained unaffected.
In a rare move, District Judge Earnest Lau released a 14-page judgment explaining the court's denial of Odex's request for Pacific Internet's client information. He compared Odex's demands to an Anton Piller order, which provides for the right to search premises and seize evidence without prior warning. Seen as draconian, it is only used under extreme circumstances. He held that only copyright holders themselves, or their exclusive licensees, can bring such applications and that he was not satisfied with the evidence harvested by BayTSP for the identification of downloaders. Out of all the anime licensed to Odex, only the license in respect of Mobile Suit Gundam SEED had been granted exclusively to the company. The judge noted that, out of the 13 authorisation letters presented in court, ten of them authorised the Anti Video Piracy Association of Singapore (AVPAS), not Odex, to act for the copyright holders. Odex was ordered to pay Pacific Internet's legal costs of S$7,000.
High Court appeal
Odex's appeal against the Subordinate Courts' decision began on 3 October 2007 before Justice Woo Bih Li in the High Court. BayTSP's CEO, Mark Ishikawa, and representatives of four Japanese studios, including TV Tokyo, Gonzo and Toei Animation, flew to Singapore to testify on behalf of Odex. Although the Japanese companies intended to file lawsuits themselves should Odex fail, the High Court approved their addition as parties to Odex's appeal.
In his judgment of 29 January 2008, Justice Woo ordered Pacific Internet to release its subscribers' information only to the six Japanese companies that were parties to the case. He explicitly denied Odex access to this information. He upheld District Judge Lau's decision that Odex was not the correct party to have asked for release of subscriber data. As a result, he directed the company to pay Pacific Internet's legal costs of S$20,000. Following the ruling, some downloaders who had already settled with Odex planned a countersuit to recover their settlement monies. The ruling may have set a precedent for online privacy in Singapore by making it more difficult for copyright licensees to take legal action against downloaders.
Further action by anime studios
In early August 2008, seven months after the High Court ruling, Showgate (previously Toshiba Entertainment), Geneon Entertainment, Sunrise, Gonzo and TV Tokyo initiated their own legal actions against downloaders. Like Odex, they were represented by Rajah & Tann and sent out letters of demand for payment to SingNet, StarHub and Pacific Internet subscribers asking users to "enter discussions" with the studios' solicitors within seven days. Showgate, which supported Odex in its appeal against Pacific Internet, consulted Odex before beginning its legal actions. Settlements were reported to range between S$5,000 and S$6,000 per person, and in August 2008, BayTSP was reported to be in contractual talks with other anime studios to track downloaders in Singapore.
Three months later, the anime studios filed a writ of summons with the Subordinate Courts against four "heavy downloaders". The hearing is likely to begin in 2009 or 2010, and legal fees could range from S$50,000 to S$80,000. The suits are closely watched by the public, as a ruling in favour of the studios could result in a flood of lawsuits against downloaders of other pirated media, such as movies and games.
Legal opinions and analysis
The case was covered extensively by the country's newspapers. In The Straits Times of Singapore, lawyers who were interviewed said anime fans would not have a strong defence against Odex if proof of uploading or downloading of unauthorised videos was presented. In his analysis, Thomas Koshy—a legal academic writing in Today—questioned the legality of Odex's threatening criminal prosecution of downloaders. Koshy maintained that only the Attorney-General had the power to prosecute and that there was no indication that he had authorized Odex to conduct prosecutions on his behalf. Moreover, Koshy opined that it was improper for Odex to have combined its demand for compensation with a threat of criminal prosecution; although Odex's letters alleged "illegal downloading activity", the company threatened punishment associated with the more serious offence of distributing materials which infringed copyrights. Koshy noted that Odex had cited a legal provision intended to regulate people's pirating for monetary gain rather than downloading by a casual consumer. Burton Ong, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law, suggested that an anime fan who downloaded a few episodes may have been able to rely on "fair dealing" as a defence against the charge of copyright infringement. One of the criteria for pursuing this line of defence would have been proving that the download subsequently boosted, rather than undermined, the commercial viability of the anime industry.
Anime fans and sympathisers used the Internet to raise funds and lodge a legal challenge to Odex's methods; one Internet user created an invitation-only forum for those considering going to court against Odex over its allegations of illegal downloads. Fans solicited legal advice and put together a library of relevant material. A letter to The Straits Times pointed out that downloaders deciding to settle out of court with Odex were afforded no protection from lawsuits initiated by other companies within the anime industry.
Following District Judge Earnest Lau's ruling in the Odex v. Pacific Internet lawsuit, Koshy expressed his belief that SingNet might be in breach of the spirit of the Telecommunications Competition Code, which protects the confidentiality of subscribers' information and prohibits unauthorised release. Another lawyer interviewed by ZDNet, however, did not think that SingNet's actions were improper, and a spokesman for the Infocomm Development Authority announced that SingNet was found to be in compliance with the code. Andy Ho, another The Straits Times editor, expressed concern that private entities might use intellectual property laws invasively, thus precipitating a chilling effect on free speech; he called for privacy laws to be quickly enacted.
Notes and references
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