Changes to Singapore’s Copyright Act and What it Means for Ownership

If you are a content creator based in Singapore, you may be interested to know about the amendments to the Copyright Act (CA).

Effective from 21 November 2021, the new CA has caused a considerable change in the default ownership of copyright. This greatly affects content creators as they now have more ownership over their works, which has many advantages.

Before diving into the details of the new CA, let us first understand the basic concepts of ownership and copyright, as well as the clauses under the old CA which was legislated in 1987.

Definitions of Ownership and Copyright

Having ownership over something means that you have control over it. For example, owning a car means that you have the right to drive it along Orchard Road, rent it to a tourist, or even sell it if you like. Similarly, you can choose to renovate, rent, or even sell your house if you own it, and all decisions are up to you.

This is extremely similar to owning a copyright.

While a car is considered personal property and a house is considered real estate property, a copyright is an intellectual property (IP). This name comes from the nature of the property, since it is created by intellectual effort. Thus, copyright protects the expression of ideas in tangible forms. When you own the copyright to a work, you control the use and commercial exploitation of these works. This means that you have the right to prevent others from reproducing, publishing, performing, communicating to the public, or adapting your work.

For example, the thoughts and emotions – meaning, the intellectual efforts – of a poet like Christine Chia can create a melancholic collection of poems, such as her works from The Law of Second Marriages. Hence, we would consider the poems as works, and the poet as the creator of such works.

Who owns the copyright? What are the benefits?

Copyright gives its owner rights over works, namely literary, artistic, and scientific works.

One of the main aims of copyright is to incentivise the creation and dissemination of new works by giving authors, artists, musicians, performers, photographers, and other creators the exclusive right to control specific uses of their works for a limited period of time.

The rights provided by copyright are categorised into two main types – moral rights and economic rights.

Simply put, moral rights are non-material rights which protect the creator’s connection with his/her work, such as a poet’s right to be named as the writer of his/her poem. Since the moral rights are personal, it can only solely belong to the creator. For example, is it possible to ask a painter like Peter Watts to paint a tranquil painting such as the Blue Tree, then ask him to sign it with another painter’s name? No. This is not legally possible, no matter how much we are happy to spend.

Economic rights, on the other hand, allow the owner to profit from the work. For example, printing copies of a poetry book, then distributing them to local libraries for sale is one way to make use of the economic rights. This would be the main focus of the question on ownership, as these rights determine who owns the work and can profit from it.

This question would come into play in two situations – firstly, when the work is created under commission; and secondly, when the work is created by an employee for his/her employer. Here, the changes to the CA have an impact.

Changes to the Copyright Act

1. Ownership of the work

Under the new CA (2021) – The creator is the owner of his/her work by default. The only exception would be when it is an employee-created work, where the default owner would be the employer.

Previously, under the old CA (1987) – The owner of a copyright would be the creator, with two exceptions:

  • When the work was created under commission, including works such as photographs, portraits, engravings, sound recordings, and films; and
  • When the work was employee-created work.

This change allows creators to now profit more from their works. For example, commercial photographers commissioned for photoshoots can now include their photographs in their portfolios and even profit from the sale of their photographs.

2. Reversal of default positions

Yet, the default positions from the new CA can be reversed if necessary. Meaning, parties can agree in writing to reverse the default position, such that the client who commissioned the work owns the copyright.

For example, if you are a commercial photographer hired to take photographs of a fashion line, you can negotiate with your client. This would include the details about which uses of the copyright you are willing to sell or licence, and which you want to keep for yourself, such as keeping the right to use the photos in your portfolio.

Other laws would continue to apply, such as personal data protection, defamation, and criminal laws. In particular, the Personal Data Protection Act gives individuals control over their personal data and how it can be used by others. This means that even if a photographer owns the copyright to the photographs, he/she must still obtain consent from all individuals featured in them before using those photographs. Creators such as photographers cannot require their clients to provide consent beyond what is reasonable to provide their services. Furthermore, individuals can withdraw consent which was given earlier.

What does this mean for creators?

In conclusion, the new change in the CA is a recognition of the creators’ efforts in creating their works, and now allows them much more ease in the protection of their rights.

Creators will surely find the benefits of this change when negotiating with their clients as they now have more authority over the work’s ownership.

Consult an Intellectual Property lawyer if unsure of your rights under the CA or for assistance in negotiations with potential clients.

For more details on the new changes to the CA and other exceptions, please refer to the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore’s Factsheet on Copyright Act 2021.

THIS IS A REPRODUCTION OF AN ARTICLE WRITTEN BY NADIA MOYNIHAN WITH THE ASSISTANCE OF PETRISSIA TEO AND FIRST PUBLISHED BY ASIA LAW NETWORK. THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE CAN BE FOUND HERE.

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