In RecordTV Pte Ltd v MediaCorp TV Pte Ltd [2010] SGCA 43 (“RecordTV”), the Court of Appeal reversed the High Court’s ruling that RecordTV, a start-up company which provided an internet digital video recorder (iDVR) service is liable for copyright infringement.

The iDVR service

RecordTV’s iDVR service allowed its registered users to request the recording of MediaCorp’s free-to-air broadcasts in Singapore. The iDVR functioned just like a traditional DVR in that a registered user could select a show from a list to record, play back or delete, except that the recordings were remotely and automatically made and stored at RecordTV’s premises. Each recording of a show could only be retrieved by the registered user who had requested that the particular show be recorded.

The registered users were mainly based in Singapore and held valid television licences, which entitled them to legally view and record the MediaCorp shows for their own “private and domestic” use.

The Court’s findings

The Court of Appeal affirmed the High Court’s finding that RecordTV did not copy the MediaCorp shows. Instead, it was the registered users requesting the recordings who copied the MediaCorp shows on the reasoning that the iDVR was simply a digital version of the traditional DVR/VCR.

The Court of Appeal also reversed the findings of the High Court that RecordTV infringed its copyright by (1) communicating the MediaCorp shows to the public, and (2) authorising its registered users to do the same.

Firstly, the court found that RecordTV did not communicate the MediaCorp shows to the public. There was no communication “to the public” because communications were to the relevant registered user who had requested the recording of a particular show privately and individually. The aggregate of private communications cannot be understood as a communication “to the public”. Moreover, the communication to the registered user was made by the user himself, being the one who determined what recordings were available in his playlist to be communicated.

Second, the court found that RecordTV did not authorise the registered users to copy or communicate to the public the MediaCorp shows. RecordTV had only provided the registered users with a facility to time-shift their viewing of the MediaCorp shows. Further, there was no evidence that RecordTV had purported to grant the registered users the right to copy or communicate to the public the MediaCorp shows.

In this regard, RecordTV had expressly stated in its Terms of Use that the registered users could use its iDVR service to record only those shows which they would otherwise be able to watch and record legally. It had also taken other precautions to prevent copyright infringement (e.g., recordings were “streamed” to registered users, and could not be “downloaded”).

The court also said that it was for MediaCorp to prove authorisation, and RecordTV did not have the burden of showing that all registered users used the iDVR for time-shifting.

Finally, the Court of Appeal held that it must follow from its finding that RecordTV did not infringe copyright that MediaCorp had made groundless threats of copyright infringement proceedings against RecordTV. Accordingly, the court found that MediaCorp’s threats are unjustifiable, and awarded damages against MediaCorp as well as an injunction restraining MediaCorp from making further threats against RecordTV.

RecordTV reflects the Court of Appeal’s attitude that, absent clear indication in the statutory language, “the courts should not be quick to interpret the statutory words expansively if doing so may stifle technological advances which are in the public’s interest”.