SINGAPORE: Even before the recent Michael Moore-directed documentary, Sicko, was released in American cinemas in June, thousands of people around the world had already watched it weeks earlier — for free, and in the comfort of their own homes, no less.
They did so on YouTube, the widely popular video-sharing website, which hosted on its server a bootleg copy of the film in its entirety that was uploaded by one of its users.
Such an occurrence is common in today's digital age, and the issue of copyright infringement looks set to continue to dominate the legal landscape around the world.
On the second day of the International Bar Association Conference 2007 yesterday at the Suntec Convention Centre, intellectual property lawyer Richard Raysman — a guest speaker from New York — engaged an audience of about 70 people in a discussion about content liability.
With 100 million videos being watched on YouTube every day, critics have argued that a fair number of these are breaking copyright laws worldwide.
A suggestion bandied about to help battle the pirates was for content providers to "tag" their materials, which would allow service providers such as YouTube and Google Video to run a search and sieve out copyrighted files before uploading them.
Mr Raysman noted how quickly the service providers dismissed the idea.
"They are upset because it means incurring extra costs. They say it's not their job to do editorial work. They want to be protected because they are distributors, not publishers, and this is frustrating for the content providers," he said.
But it will "take quite some time" for the courts to draw up the legal interpretations to keep up with the latest technological innovations, according to Mr Raysman.
Still, he urged copyright owners to continue to put pressure on websites and the authorities because new media such as YouTube are here to stay.
"There are tens of thousands of other sites out there that host copyrighted material. There has to be some law to determine the rights of copyright owners."
Another speaker, Ms Alexandra Neri, a lawyer from Paris, said that coming up with new laws was one thing, but enforcing them effectively would be a different matter altogether.
In Singapore, it is against the Copyright Act to engage in online piracy.
In 2005, three men aged 16 to 22 were arrested in their homes for sharing over 20,000 pirated digital music files in a chat channel.
Last October, content owners banded together and reported 25 offenders to the police for trading songs and movies illegally online.
Offenders face jail terms of up to five years and fines of up to $100,000.
And although having just a couple of songs in your hard drive may not be enough to warrant a criminal offence, it can attract civil liabilities when infringement is established.