A fast-selling satellite-based TV system called Dreambox is breaching the Copyright Act because it is being used to access foreign licensed channels unlawfully, legal experts believe.

Lawyers who spoke to The Times but insisted not to be named argued that, although the Dreambox and the equipment that comes with are not illegal, the distribution of content is because it involved the unauthorised use of codes of people, mostly foreigners, who were paying for the service and content.

Despite being in breach of the Copyright Act, however, the only authority that could act was the police because the Copyright Board did not have “muscle” to address the situation legally, the lawyers said. Yet, the police can only act on the strength of a formal complaint being filed by an injured party.

Oliver Weingarten, a UK solicitor who works for the Premier League, said that such “illegitimate” technologies were becoming popular around the world, with the potential of diluting rights of licensed broadcasters.

“What needs to be done in Malta is for legislation to be enacted which enables enforcement activity to be taken by the police, to act as an effective deterrent. Recently, this is what has happened in the UK and Cyprus, by way of example,” he said, adding it was only suppliers, rather than end-users, who were being targeted at this stage.

Questions sent to the police about the matter some weeks back remained unanswered at the time of writing. However, police sources said they would look into the matter if a complaint was received.

The Dreambox is a satellite receiver connected to a dish on the roof and to the internet. A series of codes are used to gain access to channels offering sports, films and other content. This is known as card sharing.

An exercise conducted by The Times among shops retailing satellite reception equipment revealed that, while many of them offer just the system without the content, others ask customers for their IP internet address to furnish them with the codes to unlock their favourite channels. This comes against a monthly fee of between €15 and €36, with the cheapest giving the user access to the basic channels.

Premier League matches and those of the Italian Serie A are available through Dreambox but their transmission in Malta is illegal because no one holds the rights to transmit the games in Malta via satellite channels, such as Sky UK or Sky Italia.

Earlier this year, several people were arrested in the UK and other European countries for their participation in a satellite card sharing website.

Although these systems have been on the market for a number of years, there was a surge in the purchase of Dreamboxes and satellite equipment in Malta when Go announced it had purchased the exclusive rights to broadcast English and Italian domestic leagues matches. The rights had previously been held by the other television service provider, Melita.

A seller advertising a Dreambox for sale on www.maltapark.com, a popular Maltese classifieds site, said the Dreambox was not ideal to receive free-to-air channels: “You won’t have time to watch free-to-air given all the channels you’ll be receiving,” the seller said.

He explained that the system worked by someone sharing a subscription over the internet. “There are people who will try to make their service cheaper by sharing it with more than six sets. In these cases, the reception suffers,” the seller said, adding he could arrange for subscriptions costing €45 for three months.

Asked whether the system was legal, the seller paused for a while, then replied: “I don’t know...” and then adding: “I think it’s legal”.

Salesmen in two particular shops explained they could supply the equipment but then referred the “buyers” acting on behalf of The Times to “someone else” when asked about content.

Asked for more information on this “someone else” who provides the service, the salesmen said they did not have any details.

At another shop, the person behind the counter said he had a number of someone who provided the service but would only supply it if the client purchased the full satellite system from him.

When a representative of The Times visited the official Dreambox shop in St Andrew’s as a prospective buyer and not identifying himself as a journalist, the shopkeeper explained there were different options to choose from and also different subscriptions.

Asked whether the system was legal, the shopkeeper said everything was legal because the Dreambox was produced in Europe and, had it been illegal, it would have been stopped.

Kevin Vella, from the Satellite Centre in St Andrews, the agent for Dreambox, declined to comment when contacted by The Times for an explanation on the legality or otherwise of the content on the systems he sells. “No comment,” he said curtly.

When contacted, spokesmen for the two TV service providers operators admitted they had noticed a sharp increase in satellite usage since earlier this year.

They said the Dreambox, and other card sharing services, were not legal and were being offered by “unauthorised and unlicensed entities”, causing irreparable damage to them because of the unlevel playing field it brought about.

“Go embraces competition in every sector it operates in. However, competition should be fair, legal and in full respect of regulatory obligations to ensure a level playing field. Anything that is illegal and infringes on the intellectual property rights we are granted by rights-holders cannot be permitted in any way,” a company spokesman said when contacted.

In the same vein, a spokesman for Melita said the presence of Dreamboxes and other satellite card-sharing solutions on the local market “should be of great concern to any pay TV operator as well as the regulatory bodies”.

“These providers offer a telecommunications service without being duly authorised or licensed. This unfair practice is skewing the market, giving rise to expectations of pricing which are unrealistic in relation to the economics of the TV content market. Moreover, there are issues of copyright and piracy in relation to content, which is not authorised or owned exclusively by channels,” the spokesman said.

Both Melita and Go said they had not reported the matter to the police because they believed the relevant authorities and regulatory bodies were aware of the issue and had all the tools and means to address it.

On its part, the Malta Communications Authority said the content aspect was not within its remit.

The issue of football rights came to light earlier this year when Nationalist MP David Agius took the matter before the House Social Affairs Committee, when he explained that consumers had no alternative except to choose whether they wanted to follow their favourite team playing in the domestic league or the ones in Europe.

The issue was discussed at marathon committee meetings but no conclusion had been reached. At the end of the last sitting to discuss the issue, committee chairman Edwin Vassallo asked the Office of Fair Competition to investigate whether there was breach of the Competition Act in the refusal by Go and Melita to share football rights. The matter is still being investigated.

Broadcasting Authority statistics show that about 12 per cent of households in Malta have satellite TV reception at home.

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