Enforcement amid digital piracy and organized crime in Vietnam

31 March 2024

Enforcement amid digital piracy and organized crime in Vietnam

Piracy extends beyond mere access to copyrighted material, with organized crime syndicates involved in operating illegal streaming sites. Espie Angelica A. de Leon explains why online piracy rampant in Vietnam and discusses the government’s efforts to combat the problem.

There’s more to digital piracy in Vietnam. To some, it may just come across as the usual: streaming sites illegally delivering live sports, movies, music, videos, Japanese anime comic books and other pirated content to millions of visitors monthly. Among these are Phimmoi, Fmovies, 123movies, Aniwatch and Xoilac. Yet, many may not know that these pirate sites, whose operations are connected to Vietnam, are involved in organized crime.

Hoa Tran, special counsel at BMVN International, a member firm of Baker McKenzie in Hanoi, revealed how it works: “A group of anonymous individuals operate the sites from unknown locations. These sites usually receive steady revenue streams from selling ad spaces to controversial or potentially criminal businesses, such as gambling or betting sites and malware. The servers hosting these sites are often placed in obscure locations, including overseas, or their locations are masked through reverse proxy services.” Some of these sites even have the capability to dodge AI-powered screening software.

Organized crime enterprises run many of these pirate sites, proving that online piracy and copyright infringement in the digital space are rampant and spreading rapidly in Vietnam. According to a 2022 survey of the Coalition Against Piracy of the Asia Video Industry Association, 61 percent of consumers admit to accessing pirate sites. Another report released by Media Partners Asia that same year ranked Vietnam in pole position in terms of accessing and sharing pirated online videos on a per capita basis. Furthermore, Vietnam has been on the United States Trade Representative’s (USTR) Special Report 301 Watch List for U.S. trading partners, notorious for counterfeiting and piracy for many years.

Because of the gravity of the problem, made even worse by these pirate sites’ links to organized crime, enforcement hasn’t been easy for the authorities considering the jurisdictional and logistical issues. Why is online piracy rampant in Vietnam, and what has the government done so far to address the problem?

To begin with, the majority of digital content users in Vietnam exhibit a lax attitude toward intellectual property rights. Aside from having limited knowledge of copyright law, they are also generally unaware of the cybersecurity risks linked to digital piracy.

Exacerbating the problems of digital piracy and copyright infringement is technology. Advances in the field, such as the rise of social media, have made it easier for people to access and share pirated content online.

Lack of legitimate content options and cost issues contribute to the problem. Some individuals in Vietnam, especially the youth, find legitimate content pricey, so they turn to pirate sites for entertainment instead. “One of the reasons why consumers may seek out pirated content is because there are no legitimate alternatives. Vietnam has a huge demand for overseas media, including Hollywood movies, Korean and Chinese TV shows and European sports leagues. However, legitimate options for Vietnamese consumers remain limited compared to neighbouring countries primarily due to the high costs of obtaining licenses for copyrighted content the domestic content providers have to bear and market entry barriers for foreign companies,” explained Tran. Among these barriers are the increased obligations under Vietnam’s regulations on digital platforms and stringent licensing requirements under the cinematography and pay-television regulations.

Throw in weak enforcement of IP rights into the mix and what you have is an environment that allows illegal streaming sites to thrive. Staff shortages and limited technical capabilities among local authorities have stripped Vietnam’s enforcement mechanism of its full ability to address the problem. According to Linh Duy Mai, head of IP enforcement at Tilleke & Gibbins in Hanoi, there is a lack of precedent for enforcement against digital piracy, leading to a time-consuming enforcement process that may not promptly address copyright infringement. He related: “So far, there have been only a few cases of criminal action against piracy on the internet. In 2021, the HCMC police opened a criminal proceeding against Phimmoi. However, this case came to a standstill as the police could not track down the offenders.”

He added that the Hanoi police brought criminal charges against another offender in 2023. The person operates a site livestreaming football matches and movies. “It is expected that the court will try this case in the coming time,” remarked Mai.

IP enforcement measures by the Vietnamese government

The Vietnamese government is actively addressing the issue of copyright infringement with a series of measures.

It has refined the country’s legal framework and enhanced the investigation, inspection and sanctioning of copyright infringements. Amendments to the IP law have been recurrently instituted following the country’s ascension to several new-generation free trade agreements calling for more stringent mechanisms against pirated content. The amendments facilitate online enforcement, including codifying ISP liabilities, providing copyright presumption and outlining clear exceptions for copyright infringement.

Decree No. 17/2023/ND-CP pertaining to the IP Law concerning copyright and related rights was issued. According to Thai Gia Han, an associate and co-head of IP & TMT at Indochine Counsel in Ho Chi Minh City, this signifies a pivotal step. “In addition to several new provisions aimed at facilitating the establishment of copyright protection, Decree 17 comprehensively addresses various aspects of copyright protection within the digital sphere. Furthermore, it mandates intermediary service providers to uphold copyright protection integrity for the first time, embedding such responsibilities into managerial protocols and augmenting the accountability of pertinent entities in upholding and defending copyright,” she explained.

“In addition, Vietnam is in the process of issuing a new administrative sanction decree, which will impose heavier sanctions than the previous one to further fortify the enforcement framework. A new IP-specialized court is also in the pipeline,” shared Tran.

Government agencies also strengthened their collaboration to facilitate information sharing, enforce IP laws more strongly and combat privacy. Among these agencies are the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the Ministry of Information and Communications and the Ministry of Public Security.

Furthermore, on December 9, 2021, the Ministry of Information and Communication established the Vietnam Digital Copyright Center (VDCC) under the Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information. The VDCC was created to relay copyright-related news developments from the TV, radio and online newspaper spheres to the public.

To cast a wider net for tracking down copyright infringement activities, the government also collaborates with IP rights holders, internet service providers and organizations such as the Motion Picture Association (MPA).

Moreover, the government has taken legal action against pirate sites, forcing them to shut down operations. “Authorities have conducted raids, investigations and prosecutions against individuals and entities involved in digital piracy. Recently, authorities have criminally prosecuted cases related to pirate sites illicitly livestreaming movies or reproducing football matches,” shared Mai.

Public awareness initiatives are also part of government efforts to educate people on the ill effects of digital piracy on creators, industries and the economy as a whole.

The way forward

“Vietnam has established a relatively comprehensive legal framework to protect copyright, but its practical application still needs improvement,” said Tran. “Tracking, investigating and prosecuting pirates or infringers in the digital age is challenging due to their unknown locations or servers, resembling a game of whack-a-mole.”

So what else can be done?

Han believes that a more wide-ranging collaboration is needed. “Vietnam should collaborate more with international organizations and foreign governments to address cross-border copyright infringement issues and exchange best practices in combating piracy. This cooperation enhances the effectiveness of enforcement measures and facilitates the prosecution of offenders operating across borders,” she said.

On October 13, 2023, a seminar on the management of radio and television service activities, including pirate sites, was held in Vietnam, organized by the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC). During the occasion, deputy minister of information and communication Nguyen Thanh Lam announced that the MIC aims to form a specialized unit to clamp down on pirate sites in the country with the participation of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and Ministry of Public Security.

“The MIC’s initiative is indeed encouraging as Vietnam is now emerging as a key exporter of digital pirated content, and many stakeholders in the industries like K+ and the MPA have been voicing for cross-ministerial collaboration to promptly address copyright infringement in Vietnam,” said Yen Vu, principal and country manager of Rouse Legal Vietnam, member of the Rouse Network, in Ho Chi Minh City. “To cope with the fast-moving nature of digital piracy, it is important for the specialized task force to streamline the coordination process by establishing memorandums of understanding, or even issuing joint circulars, between the key stakeholders.”

According to Tran, combating digital piracy should be a priority of the government when allocating resources, given the prominence of the content market, high consumer demand and the damages suffered by state-controlled or invested industries. Part of the resources should be dedicated to developing and improving enforcement capabilities. “Enforcement officers should be trained in both laws and technical measures to crack down on piracy sites. Moreover, the government can solicit cooperation from content industries to enhance its enforcement efforts,” she said, adding that it is also important to strengthen judicial expertise for copyright infringement cases.

Another measure that Vietnam’s government should look into is the reduction, if not total dismantling, of the barriers preventing foreign legitimate content providers from penetrating the Vietnamese market. Tearing down the barriers will allow these lawful content providers to deliver to the Vietnamese public more affordable alternatives to pirated content.

Of course, more education and awareness initiatives are needed as well.

On the part of copyright owners, Vu said: “Copyright holders may consider pursuing a ‘Knock and Talk’ operation with an attempt to quickly close down the piracy sites. Notably, the operators often remain anonymous in the online environment, posing challenges for identification. Therefore, the successful execution of this operation necessitates the active participation and coordination of three components – investigators, lawyers and rights owners.”

Despite the government’s efforts, online piracy remains a major issue in Vietnam – but hope isn’t lost. “While there is no denying that Vietnam is among the top markets to watch for piracy issues, the country is not on the USTR’s Priority Watch List,” said Tran. “Only three out of 40 sites listed in the agency’s List of Notorious Markets are purportedly based in Vietnam.”

Additionally, the popularity of Vietnamese pirated sites is not necessarily because people from other parts of the world have heard about them and thus tried to access these sites. Rather, it may be attributed to the fact that Vietnam has a large base of consumers for pirated content. “The fact is that many sites are still strictly targeting a Vietnamese audience,” said Tran.

Also, according to Han, Vietnam may have previously harboured certain pirate sites, but their number has significantly decreased. Heightened regulatory measures imposed by state authorities have made this possible. Vietnam, indeed, is taking steps in the right direction and progress is underway.

“Nonetheless, addressing these challenges requires sustained commitment, as they are not issues that can be resolved hastily,” he emphasized. “Further dedication and effort remain imperative to this ongoing endeavour.”

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