RecordTV: playing back that same track?

Since Monday, I’ve been closely following the proceedings of RecordTV CEO Carlos Fernandes v.s. Mediacorp in the news.  It isn’t every day that we Singaporeans gets to see a court case being fought out between Singapore’s largest broadcaster and an internet start-up, and this news sure beats hearing about yet another few scores of Influenza A H1N1 cases, or empty Asian Youth Games matches at a paltry 7% ticket sales.  Sensing a good fight in the making, I pulled up my field chair and did some research of my own, while watching the fireworks whizz by each day.

Once Bitten…

Then US-based RecordTV loses lawsuit to members of MPAA and shuts down.

Then US-based RecordTV loses lawsuit to members of MPAA and shuts down.

Back in 2001, after 9 months of expensive litigation, RecordTV.com was ruled by the American courts to have violated the copyrights of a dozen heavyweight members of MPAA.  Joining forces, Paramount Pictures, MGM Studios, Disney, 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures, TriStar Pictures and Fox Films succeeded in squashing founder and CEO David Simon’s RecordTV.com.  David was made to pay a token US$50,000 in legal fees, and RecordTV.com was ordered to be shut down.  David subsequently issued a statement following the verdict.

“I am pleased, after nine months of litigation that this case has been resolved. RecordTV.com has always wanted to work with the MPAA and its members to implement an online VCR and the cloud of litigation has always acted as a roadblock to industry cooperation and the raising of venture capital. I am hopeful that one day, the right balance between copyright protection, security, and consumer access will be achieved, such that software-based Internet VCRs will become a regular part of everyday life.”

Then-President of MPAA Jack Valenti told Wall Street Journal.

We’re not going to make it easy for these guys to steal our material.  You have to go after these people fast, immediately, when they poke their head up.

What did these entrepreneurs expect, really?  Creative Commons had just been established, and the concept of designating stuff for free use (like what PBS does with some of its documentaries today) was as remote as a black man for the US Presidency (at that time).

…Twice Unshy

In February 2007, a pair of brave entrepreneurs Carlos Fernandes and Varsha Jagdale bought over the assets of RecordTV.com for an undisclosed sum.  A little trawling around Google reveals the following about our lead actor, Mr. Carlos Fernandes.

Carlos FernandesCalled an ‘Ideas Man’ by one of Asia’s leading newspapers, cited by the Singaporean administration as entrepreneurial talent that has made his mark on the country, covered extensively by the media, Mr. Fernandes is one of Singapore’s well known entrepreneurs. He is the founding CEO of Perceptivei, a company that develops enterprise software for Governments, Fortune 500 and blue chip customers. In recognition of his impact on society and the technology sector in Singapore and the region, Mr. Fernandes was named ‘Young Professional of the Year’ by the Singapore Computer Society (SCS), a 17,000 member strong society that represents Singapore’s largest IT professional body. He is also the recipient of the prestigious Tan Kah Kee Young Inventors’ Award. With a strong belief in affecting positive social change, Mr. Fernandes co-founded LDKids, an initiative to help learning disabled children cope with the academic environment of today. LDKids has been widely noted internationally, including the BBC and SKY News. As a frequent industry speaker, he plays a key role in fostering entrepreneurship in Singapore and works with the Singapore Government and educational institutions in this mission. In addition to chairing the Knowledge Management & E-Learning Special Interest Group (SIG) at SCS, Mr. Fernandes is actively involved in various programs to nurture the development of the infocomm industry in Singapore for the years to come.”

In an interview with Alfred Siew of the Straits Times, Mr. Fernandes noted that his Singapore firm was free of any legal burden of then-RecordTV.com, explaining that RecordTV had only bought RecordTV.com’s assets.  He also added that he was careful to avoid expensive lawsuits with the content industry, by recording only free-to-air programmes and restricting access to his service to Singapore users.  The words of Cai Hui Jie best summed up my own thoughts: ‘There are a lot of websites like PeekVid.com which let you watch dramas and comedies from around the world.  Why would you want to record programmes from Singapore only?”

Apparently, Mr. Fernandes’ best efforts at skirting the ire of Singapore’s content king wasn’t good enough.

Round 1, Fight!

Round 1 of the David-vs-Goliath fight began back in July and September 2007, when Mediacorp served “cease and desist” letters on RecordTV after it had launched its free web recording service that allowed users to record TV shows from Channel 5, Channel 8 and Channel NewsAsia and play them back for up to 15 days.  RecordTV delivered a counter-punch by suing 4 companies under the Mediacorp umbrella for making “groundless threats of legal proceedings for copyright infringement”.  According to TODAYonline, the start-up claimed that Mediacorp’s threats had cost the firm an estimated loss of about S$30.5 million in potential business and financing.

Round 2, K-O?

As the court battle between Senior Counsel Davindar Singh (Mediacorp) and Ang Kai Hsiang (RecordTV) wages on, the following are the 3 key questions that have arisen from the legal tussle thus far:

  • When a user uses RecordTV to record free-to-air programmes, who is really the one making the recording?
  • Is RecordTV seeking to profit from the provision of its service at the unfair expense of taxpayer monies?
  • Will RecordTV’s service result in a fall of television licensing fees, impacting the quality of free-to-air content produced for national purposes?

Relevant news articles on the RecordTV v.s. Mediacorp case:

  1. Web-based recording services under spotlight as Mediacorp and RecordTV go to trial
  2. Broadcaster has community role to play, says Mediacorp in court.
  3. RecordTV controls its web recording system, says MediaCorp in trial
  4. Firm’s service at taxpayers’ expense
  5. An issue of who makes the recording

Although the case has yet to be concluded, my gut sense is telling me that history will once again repeat itself, ruling in favour of Mediacorp.

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.