Copyright infringement cases are not as common as debt recovery, divorce, or tenancy disputes. In fact, barely a handful of them gets decided by the Singapore High Courts in a year. However, with the advent of social media and this generation’s vulnerability to sharing and posting information online, there is a need for people to know their underlying rights and obligations when dealing with intellectual property.
What is Copyright?
It is important to understand copyright. Copyright protects the expression of ideas in tangible forms. If your work is copyrighted, that means you have the right to prevent others from reproducing, publishing, performing, communicating to the public, or adapting your work and you control their use and commercial exploitation.
These rights are specifically provided for under the Copyright Act of Singapore (2021) which states that the copyright owner of an artistic work has the exclusive right to make a copy of the work, publish the work if it is unpublished, and communicate the work to the public. In addition, a copyright owner also has the exclusive right to perform the work in public, make an adaptation of the work, and rent the work.
Duration of Copyright
In Singapore, copyright protection is conferred upon a work at the moment of its creation. Thus, registration is not a requirement, or compliance with other formalities is not needed before a work is accorded copyright protection.
Different types of works are also conferred different durations of copyright protection. For example, literary, dramatic or musical works are protected from their creation up to 70 years after the year of the author’s death. Meanwhile, photographs, sound recordings, and films are protected within 70 years of first publication, and broadcast and cable programs are protected within 50 years of the year of first publication.
As provided under the Copyright Act, copyright infringement can occur if someone does any of the above-mentioned exclusive rights without permission or license from the copyright owner.
An example of an infringing activity is posting a literary or artistic work on a blog without crediting the owner, may it be a piece of writing or a photograph.
To successfully debunk a claim of copyright infringement in Singapore, the copying must fall under any one of the three categories stated below:
- there is a license or permission from the copyright owner;
- the copying is within the scope of one of the permitted uses; and
- the copying does not involve a substantial taking of copyright material.
Fair Dealing Doctrine
There is a defence that can be used in copyright infringement and that is the “fair dealing” exception. This means that a person will not be liable for copyright infringement if the use of a copyrighted work qualifies as “fair dealing.”
Likewise, Section 191 of The Copyright Act also provides a non-exhaustive list of factors that the court will take into account in deciding if a use of a copyrighted work is “fair.” These factors can include:
- The purpose and character of the use;
- The nature of the work one is using;
- The amount and substantiality of the portion of the work used in relation to the whole work;
- The effect on the potential market for, or value of, the work.
This list of factors though is not exclusive, and the court may take into consideration other attending circumstances like good faith of the other party and the character of the use. This is especially if the use case is imbued with public interest. Ultimately, the decision of the court will depend on the unique circumstances of each case.
Under normal circumstances, the breach of copyright typically leads only to civil liability. This entitles a copyright owner to damages or other civil remedies such as an injunction. In some cases where a copyright owner manages to establish an intention to “exploit for commercial purposes” or actual “commercial exploitation” of infringing copies, there could be criminal liability and the court may impose a hefty fine, a term of imprisonment or both.
Under Section 119(4) of The Copyright Act, additional compensation may be offered to the plaintiff when an infringement of copyright is established, and when the court is satisfied that it is proper to do so. In doing so, the court must consider the flagrancy of the infringement, any benefit shown to have accrued to the defendant by reason of the infringement, and all other relevant matters.
Law Reform Updates on Copyright Law
On 21 November 2021, the new Copyright Act came into force, guaranteeing stronger rights for creators and performers alike. The new Act was targeted at addressing the loopholes that new technological developments had created. Under the new Act, some provisions were introduced:
- Creators now had default ownership of certain commissioned works;
- Creators and performers now had the right to be identified for their work;
- Usage of copyrighted works for educational and research purposes was now permitted when accessed lawfully.
This new Act thus accords greater ownership rights and privileges to the creators of original content, helping to support innovation in the process.1
Furthermore, new rules under the Supreme Court of Judicature (Intellectual Property) Rules 2022 were implemented on 01 April 2022 to simplify the process of assessing copyright infringement claims.2
Copyright Law in the News
Typically, issues related to copyright law are not directly highlighted in the news. However, copyright infringement has been noted as one of the reasons for the noticeable crackdown in the sales of illegal streaming devices since 2021. As recently as 07 October 2022, 17 people were arrested for their suspected involvement in the sales of illegal streaming devices.1
Copyright Infringement Judgements
There have been many rulings related to copyright infringement in the past few years. Of recent noteworthiness are the following judgements:
1. DR. WHO WATERWORKS PTE. LTD. & 2 Ors v DR. WHO (M) SDN. BHD. & 3 Ors  SGHC 156
In this case, the judge ruled that the first defendant had violated the copyright of the plaintiff. The judge noted that the breakdown of relations between both parties was not sufficient to justify the extent of time and resources spent on raising unfounded claims, arguing that the true dispute should lie within the issue of copyright infringement.3
2. TIGER PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT LTD v ENCORE FILMS PTE LTD  SGHC 138
This case addressed the first usage of the simplified process under the Supreme Court of Judicature (Intellectual Property) Rules 2022. Notably, it emphasised the Court’s role in facilitating this transition to a simplified process that benefits both the courts and the parties involved, without having to drag out the dispute in the process.4
3. SIEMENS INDUSTRY SOFTWARE INC. v INZIGN PTE LTD  SGHC 50
This case highlights how companies can be liable for the copyright infringement actions of their own employee, while also serving as a recent case assessing copyright claims in relation to software licensing issues.5
Copyright law can be a thorny issue to navigate, especially when it comes to identifying cases of fair dealing. It is important for us to stay clear of violating another person’s copyright, so that we can create a safer and more responsible cyberspace for all.
Glossary and Key Terms
Copyright: The protection of one’s expression of ideas in a tangible form
Infringement: Refers to the violation of copyright by reproducing, publishing, performing, communicating to the public, or adapting your work without permission or license
Fair Dealing: Refers to the “fair” usage of copyrighted work by virtue of its transformative value, purpose, character of use etc.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q: Can I copyright an idea or concept?
A: Copyright does not protect ideas or concepts. It protects the expression of those ideas or concepts in a tangible form. To be eligible for copyright protection, a work must be original and fixed in a physical or digital medium.
Q: Can I use copyrighted material if I give credit to the original creator?
A: Giving credit to the original creator is a matter of attribution, but it does not automatically grant permission to use copyrighted material. You generally need explicit permission from the copyright owner or a valid legal exception, such as fair use or a specific licensing agreement.
Q: What are the penalties for copyright infringement?
A: The penalties for copyright infringement can vary depending on the severity of the infringement. They can include monetary damages, injunctions, and potential criminal charges in some cases.
Q: How do I enforce my copyright if someone infringes on my work?
A: To enforce your copyright, you can send a cease-and-desist letter, file a lawsuit seeking damages and injunctions, or pursue alternative dispute resolution methods. Consultation with an intellectual property lawyer is advisable to understand the specific steps and options available in Singapore.