Copyright Law in Singapore: Your Rights and What It Protects

Last updated on November 22, 2021

person stealing copyrighted work

What is Copyright?

Copyright is something we encounter often in our daily lives. The songs we listen to, the movies we watch, and the social media posts we read are all protected by copyright. But what is copyright exactly?

Copyright is an Intellectual Property (IP) right that protects the expression of ideas (but not the idea itself). From paintings to plays, copyright protects original literary, musical, dramatic and artistic works that have been expressed and recorded in a tangible form.

Copyright does not protect inventions or a company’s brand. Those are protected by patents and trademarks respectively.

In Singapore, copyright is governed by the Copyright Act (CA). This article will explain:

What are the Rights of a Copyright Owner?

Rights to reproduce, publish, perform, communicate and adapt the work

Copyright protects expressions of ideas by granting the copyright owner of the work a bundle of rights. This bundle of rights grants the copyright owner exclusive rights to reproduce, publish, perform, communicate and adapt his or her work.

While these are the main rights protected by copyright law, the CA also provides for additional protection for certain types of performances and “moral” rights.

Rights relating to protected performances

The CA also provides for rights pertaining to “protected performances”, i.e. certain performances, such as dance and music (but not audience participation or delivery of news), that were performed live in Singapore and/or by a Singapore citizen or resident.A person would make an infringing use of such a performance if he or she:

  • Records the performance (including making a sound recording of it)
  • Makes copies of such a recording;
  • Is the first to publish any recording of the performance;
  • Makes a recording of the performance available to the public (e.g. on the Internet); or 
  • Deals commercially in a recording of the performance.

Please note that recordings of such performances may be permitted if they were made for private and domestic use. For instance, a recording would not infringe copyright if it was made for your own personal viewing as opposed to, for example, posting it on a public platform or selling the recording.

Moral rights

Authors also have various “moral rights” under the CA. These include:

  • Right to be identified
    • This is the right for authors to be acknowledged whenever their work is used or communicated to the public. This helps authors build their reputation and incentivises the creation of new works.
  • Right against false identification
    • This is the right to not have any other person identified as the author of the work when the work is used or communicated to the public.
  • Right not to be falsely identified as the author of a copy of an artistic work where the copy had not been made by him or her
  • Right not to have an altered copy presented as unaltered

The right to be identified does not apply in certain situations, including:

  • Computer programs.
  • Authorial works made in the course of the author’s employment if the author’s employer is the first owner of the copyright (see below).
  • Where the identity of the author is not known and cannot reasonably be ascertained. Note that if an author is known by some name other than his or her true name, their identity is still considered known.
  • Certain permitted uses (see below) such as fair use for the purpose of reporting news, taking photos of artistic works in public places, and uses for judicial proceedings.

Moral rights can be formally waived by the author under the CA. Such a formal waiver is valid only if it is made in writing and signed by the author. However, authors can also waive their moral rights through informal means that do not involve making and signing a written waiver.

It should also be noted that these moral rights are in addition to any other rights that a copyright owner may have. This means that even if you credit the author sufficiently such that you do not breach his or her moral rights while using their work, you may still be infringing their copyright if you did not obtain a licence for using the work, or if your use of the work is not a permitted use (more below).

For more information, refer to our other article on moral rights in Singapore.

Is Copyrighted Work Protected Overseas?

Copyright is territorial. This means that copyright arising in Singapore is generally valid only within her borders.

However, copyrighted works created in Singapore can also be protected in overseas countries that have been designated as a “reciprocating country”. These countries include countries that are a signatory to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), an international treaty that governs intellectual property rights globally. Any copyright created in Singapore is also protected in countries that are signatories to TRIPS.

Note that, however, the moral rights of an author are not infringed by any act done outside Singapore, or by any omission in relation to an act done outside Singapore.

For more information, please refer to our article on copyright outside Singapore.

Do I Need to Register My Copyright in Singapore?

Copyright in Singapore automatically comes into existence for works that qualify for protection (see below). There is no need to worry about registration or the paperwork associated with it. This will save authors time, effort and registration fees.

Do I Need a Copyright Licence?

If you are an author who intends to commercialise your work 

Authors who intend to commercialise their work do not need to acquire a copyright licence or register their copyright as there is no copyright registry in Singapore. Instead, the author is free to license his copyright to third-parties to use through licensing agreements.

Alternatively, the author may also choose to assign his copyright through written agreements.

Do note, however, that you would lose ownership of the copyright upon assigning it. In contrast, licences allow you to retain ownership while allowing another party to use the copyright.

It should also be noted that an author’s moral rights are personal to him or her, and cannot be assigned to others.

If you are a third-party who intends to use an author’s copyrighted work 

Need for licence

Generally, a person who intends to use a work under copyright protection will need a licence to do so if he or she is not the copyright owner.

For example, if you are a video producer, you may wish to include background music created by someone else in your video. In such a case, a licence is needed from the author of the music before you can use that music in the video without infringing on the author’s copyright.

How to obtain a licence

To obtain a licence, you must contact the copyright owner directly or the collecting society managing that particular work in Singapore.

Collecting societies are organisations that help copyright owners manage their IP rights. For example, COMPASS Singapore manages the copyrighted works of composers and lyricists.

Permitted uses

If the use of a copyrighted work is a permitted use, then you would not require a licence for such use. 

Fair use

One example of a permitted use is when the use of the copyright is considered “fair use”. Whether the use of the work is fair is determined by factors such as:

  • Whether the work is being used for commercial purposes;
  • Nature of the work;
  • Amount of the work being used; and
  • Effect on the value of the work

If the work is used for the purpose of reporting news, or for the purpose of criticism or review, that use will not be considered fair unless the work has been sufficiently acknowledged.

Other permitted uses

Other permitted uses where a person can use a copyrighted work without infringing upon the copyright owner’s copyright, or obtaining a licence from the copyright owner, include:

  1. When the work is being used for data analysis. The use is, however, limited only to the acts of copying an author’s work for the purposes of data analysis or preparing the work for data analysis, and where the access to the work is not unlawful (such as by circumventing paywalls or breaching the terms of use of a database). The work being copied also cannot be itself in breach of copyright, unless:
    • The copier:
      • Does not know this; and
      • Could not have reasonably known that the work being copied had been obtained from a flagrantly infringing online location; or
      • It is necessary to use the infringing copy for a prescribed purpose.
  2. Use by non-profit educational institutions, museums, galleries, libraries and archives. For example, educational institutions may use online works that are available for free for educational purposes. As for museums, galleries, libraries and archives, they are permitted to make copies or publicly perform audio-visual materials that are already in their public collection for the purpose of exhibition.
  3. Computer programs. Under certain circumstances, a user of a computer program may make backup copies of that program, decompile a low-level computer program, and/or copy or adapt the program as necessary for lawful use (e.g. to correct a bug in the program).
  4. Films depicting historical events. It is permitted to show a film in public if that film wholly or mainly consists of images that were initially means of communicating news about events that occurred at least 50 years ago.
  5. Judicial proceedings and legal advice. It is permitted to use a work in any way for the purposes of a judicial proceeding, seeking professional advice from a lawyer, or in the course of giving professional advice as a lawyer.
  6. Use of religious works. It is permitted to perform a literary, dramatic or musical work if the work is of a religious nature, and if the performance is in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly.
  7. Private and domestic use. A person may record a live protected performance or make a copy of a broadcast, cable programme or recording of a protected performance, if the recording or copy is made for the private and domestic use of the person. The copy or recording is not made for private and domestic use if it is made for the purpose of:
    • Commercial dealing;
    • Broadcasting;
    • Inclusion in a cable programme; or
    • Causing the relevant visual images and sounds to be seen or heard (or both) in public.

Excluding or restricting permitted uses via contract

The owner of the copyright may be able to exclude or restrict the application of a particular permitted use to a particular person (Person A), but only through a contract that is individually negotiated with Person A.

The term excluding such use must be fair and reasonable. This invites consideration of matters such as:

  • The relative bargaining positions of the parties; 
  • Whether Person A could have accepted a similar contract without a similar term; 
  • Whether Person A knew or should have known of the existence and extent of the term; and 
  • Whether it was reasonable at the time to expect that the contract would work without the term. 

However, some permitted uses may not be excluded or restricted, regardless of how fair and reasonable they might be. In particular, a contract term will have no effect in law if it attempts to exclude or restrict any permitted use relating to:

  • Public collections (excluding permitted uses relating to supplying copies of published literary, dramatic or musical works or articles between libraries and archives);
  • Computer programs;
  • Computational data analysis; or
  • Judicial proceedings and legal advice.

What are the Requirements for Copyright Protection in Singapore?

To qualify for copyright protection, your work must satisfy all of the following requirements:

  1. It must be a work of a type that is protected by the CA such as an “authorial work”, i.e. a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work.
    • A literary work is one that is written and contains information that can be read, including compilations and computer programs.
    • A dramatic work is a work capable of being performed, including dances, mimes and scripts for a film.
      • Note that dances or mimes made before 21 November 2021 are not considered dramatic works unless they are described in writing in the form in which the show is to be presented.
    • A musical work is an arrangement of musical notes.
    • Artistic works refer to a painting, sculpture, drawing, photograph, a building, or any work of artistic craftsmanship. The artistic quality of the work does not matter. A student’s doodles in class and a painting by a master painter both qualify for copyright protection.
    • Other protected works under the CA include sound recordings, films, broadcasts, cable programs and protected performances.
  2. Connected to Singapore. The CA requires the author to be a Singapore citizen or residing in Singapore, or that the work was first published in Singapore.
  3. Expressed in a tangible form. The CA requires that the work be reduced to writing or some other material form.
  4. Original. A work is considered original if it originated from the author. This is even if someone else produces a similar work independently. For example, two photographers can take a similar photograph of the Singapore skyline on their own, with no knowledge of each other’s photograph. Both works can be granted copyright protection and neither would be infringing upon the other’s copyright.

How is the Owner of a Copyrighted Work Decided?

Usually, the copyright owner is the author of the work, but this is not always the case. For example, the author may have sold his copyright to another party through an assignment.

Other situations where copyright ownership may be vested in another party other than the author include where:

  1. The work was commissioned. For certain works, such as photographs or paintings/drawings of portraits, copyright vests in the party that commissioned the work if the agreement was entered into before 21 November 2021. For works commissioned after 21 November 2021,  copyright first vests in the author instead of the commissioner,  i.e. the author would be the first owner of the copyright regardless of the type of work that had been commissioned.
  2. The author created the work during the course of employment. The copyright would then be owned by the author’s employer, except if the work is made for publication in a periodical such as a newspaper (i.e. where the author is a journalist). 
  3. The author is a journalist. The proprietor of the periodical (e.g. a newspaper or magazine, including online periodicals) that the author works for would have the right to reproduce and publish the work. All other rights would remain with the author.

Do I Need to Include the Copyright Symbol in My Work?

The use of the copyright symbol, or ©, is not required. Copyright would automatically exist for your original work with or without the copyright symbol.

However, using the copyright symbol may give you an advantage if you later end up bringing court proceedings over alleged copyright infringement of your work. It may prevent an alleged copyright infringer (i.e. someone who allegedly used your copyrighted work without permission) from claiming ignorance of any infringement because the copyright symbol would have notified them that the work is under copyright protection.

If the court is convinced that the alleged copyright infringer knew that he was infringing on your copyright as he had seen the copyright symbol on your work, the court may grant you a higher award of damages than you would have received had you not used the copyright symbol.

How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?

For literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works (whether they are published or not), copyright in Singapore generally lasts for 70 years after the author’s death. However, if the author is not identified, the following rules apply:

  • If a work is first published within 50 years after the work is made, copyright in the work lasts for 70 years after the work is first published (unless the author is identified during those 70 years);
  • If the work is published more than 50 years after the work is made, but it is made available to the public by some means other than publication within those 50 years, copyright in the work lasts for 70 years after the work is first made available to the public (unless the author is identified during those 70 years);
  • In any other case, 70 years after the end of the year in which the work was made (unless the author is identified during those 70 years).

In all the above cases, if the author is identified within the new 70-year period, the default rule applies, namely that the copyright expires 70 years after the author’s death.

Note that different rules apply to certain works first published before 31 December 2022. For example, copyright in a photograph would expire 70 years after its first publication.  See section 115 of the CA for the details.

Copyright in sound recordings and films generally lasts for 70 years from the making of the work, if unpublished. The copyright will expire 70 years from the date of first publication instead, if the work is:

  • First published within 50 years of when the work is made; or
  • First published before 31 December 2022.

In the case of films first published more than 50 years after the film is made, but where the film is made public by some other means than publication within those 50 years, copyright expires 70 years after the film was first made available to the public.

For broadcasts, copyright lasts for 50 years from the date of broadcast. Copyright in any repeat broadcasts will expire at the same time as the original broadcast. If a repeat broadcast is made after the 50-year period, no copyright subsists in the repeat broadcast.

Copyright in a cable programme expires 50 years after the cable programme is first included in the cable programme service.

Protection for a protected performance lasts until 70 years after the performance is given.

After the copyright expires, the work passes into public domain. This means that everyone would be free to use, adapt, or build on the work without first needing to obtain permission from the copyright owner, or ensuring that their use is a permitted use. The CA does not allow for copyright protection to be revived once it has expired.

Please note that different rules may apply to works made or before 21 November 2021. See Part 12 of the CA (under the header “Transitional”) for details. 

What Can I Do If Someone Infringes Upon My Copyright?

Copyright infringement happens when someone exercises the copyright owner’s bundle of rights (see above) without his consent, and there are no valid defences to infringement (such as the use of the work being a permitted use).

For example, copyright infringement can occur if someone has reproduced the copyright owner’s work without obtaining a licence to do so, and cannot rely on any of the exceptions to copyright infringement mentioned above.

The copyright owner can pursue legal action if they suspect that their copyright has been infringed upon:

  1. Civil proceedings. The copyright owner can sue for damages, or for any profits made as a result of the infringement. The copyright owner can also request the court for an order to stop the infringer from further violating the copyright.
  2. Criminal charges. If found guilty of making copies of infringing works for sale, or selling such infringing works for example, an infringing individual can be fined for up to S$10,000 per infringing copy up to a total of S$100,000, jailed for up to 5 years or given both punishments.

Copyright can be described as an invisible gold. Its commercialisation potential is immense, but so are the risks accompanying it, such as piracy and infringement.

Let our IP lawyers advise you on how best to navigate the pitfalls and possibilities of copyright in Singapore, such as the licensing of your copyright or the steps you should take to pursue any infringers.