Pirate Set-Top Box Seller Has Jail Sentence Overturned Due to Prosecution Error

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A man who was sentenced to three months in jail for selling piracy-configured set-top boxes will not be imprisoned following a successful appeal. The original prosecution, carried out privately on behalf of companies including the Premier League, relied on an earlier decision that was later overruled, resulting in a sentence that was "manifestly excessive."

All around the world, content creators, distributors and associated anti-piracy groups are grappling with the thorny issue of piracy-configured set-top boxes.

These cheap devices were initially embraced by the tech-savvy but later attracted a broad audience among the general public, rendering piracy both easy and cheap to access for the masses.

Numerous legal actions have been launched in Europe and the United States but in recent years the fight has migrated to Asia too. In January 2018, it was reported that telecoms, broadcasting, and sporting giants SingTel, Starhub, Fox Networks Group and the Premier League, had teamed up to launch a pioneering private prosecution against those involved in the supply of devices in Singapore.

The action targeted set-top box distributor Synnex Trading and its client and wholesale retailer, An-Nahl. The rightsholders also named Synnex Trading director Jia Xiaofen and An-Nahl director Abdul Nagib as defendants. Last April, Nagib’s case was concluded with a small fine of less than $1,000 but nevertheless marked the first successful prosecution of a ‘pirate’ box seller in the country.

The case against Synnex Trading and director Jia Xiaofen was less straightforward. After pleading guilty to four charges of criminal copyright infringement, in October 2019 the director was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison and ordered to pay a fine of S$5,400 (US$3,800) while his company was fined S$160,800 (US$113,500). However, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) quickly filed an appeal, claiming that the sentencing was flawed.

According to the AGC, sentencing submissions made by the parties involved in the private prosecution relied on an earlier court decision where a man was initially sentenced to eight weeks in jail for selling modified Playstation2 consoles and copying pirated software to customers’ machines. However, that jail sentence was later overruled and replaced with a fine. As a result, the jail sentence handed down to Jia Xiaofen was excessive, the AGC argued.

In submissions late March 2020, three Deputy Public Prosecutors wrote that the AGC should assist the court with sentencing in the Jia Xiaofen case, to ensure that an appropriate sentence was handed down based on accurate precedents.

“This responsibility undergirds a crucial aspect of the administration of criminal justice in Singapore — that all offenders are punished appropriately,” the DPPs wrote, as cited by TodayOnline.

“It is in this context that the Public Prosecutor has taken the unusual but necessary step of filing the present appeal against the sentence of 12 weeks’ imprisonment imposed upon (Jia).”

During the prosecution, neither the defense nor the prosecution in Jia’s case mentioned the fact that the earlier prison sentence had been overruled, which meant that the District Court handed down a similar sentence when there was no precedent. As a result, this week the High Court overruled Jia’s 12-week prison term but the defendant didn’t escape punishment.

On the advice of the DPPs, Jia Xiaofen was handed a fine of S$32,100 (US$22,000) and the original and much larger fine against his company was ordered to stand.

What this means for sentencing in future cases isn’t yet clear but with no precedent for relatively harsh periods of imprisonment, larger fines in their place seem a potential solution.

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