An Introduction to Copyright Law in Singapore


Understanding Singapore Copyright Law

The Singapore Copyright Act makes wilful copyright infringement by either a person or company a criminal offense, with the statute of limitations for the offense set at six years.

A range of creative works including literature, computer programs, plays, musical compositions, paintings and more are protected under copyright. Expressions, rather than the foundational ideas, are protected by copyright law. The author of a copyrighted work generally has the right to adapt, publish, perform, communicate or reproduce said work, and these discrete exclusive rights together are referred to as copyright, enabling a copyright owner control over the nature and the extent of the commercial exploitation of their work.

As a type of tangible property, copyright can be traded between entities, as well as licensed or transferred either as a bundle of all exclusive rights (i.e. the licensee will enjoy all of the rights afforded under the copyright) or only as a single right (e.g. the right to reproduce).

Protection of copyright

Singapore’s current copyright protection regime is based on the Copyright Act (Cap. 63), passed in 1987. Please note that for copyright material produced prior to 1987 and the implementation of the Copyright Act, the original Copyright Act 1911 of United Kingdom remains relevant.

Based on comparable Australian legislation, the act stipulates the circumstances under which a work is considered to be protected by copyright. For a work to be protected, it must be original and expressed in a tangible form. This can take the form of a recorded work or one produced in writing. The originality requirement means that a degree of independent effort was put into the creation of the work. Copyright is not awarded based on the presence (or not) of creative merit.

Authors enjoy protection under Singapore copyright law as soon as they create and express their work in a tangible form. Registration is not required for copyright protection to be afforded.

An owner may choose to license the copyright to a third party, with licenses provided in full or partially with a limited, pre-determined scope, and either exclusively or non-exclusively. Future copyrights on works yet to be produced may also be licensed.

In the majority of cases, the original author of a work retains the corresponding copyright, unless another party commissioned the work, in which case the other party will own the copyright in the absence of an agreement to the contrary. The case is similar in an employee-employer relationship, under which the employer will own the copyright in the absence of an agreement to the contrary.

The violation of a copyright owner’s exclusive rights constitutes copyright infringement under Singapore law. This occurs when another party copies, distributes, performs or displays the copyright work in part or in full without the prior permission of the copyright owner. Establishing copyright infringement requires that the copyright owner establish proof of their ownership of the copyright and proof of the other party’s copying.

A person may copy a non-substantial part of a work for the purposes of private study or research under the Copyright Act of Singapore.

Since the amendment of the Singapore Copyright Act in January 2005, wilful copyright infringement of a copyright work by a person or company is a criminal offense. The statute of limitations for this offense in Singapore is six years.

Differentiating copyright and trademark

While both copyrights and trademark afford the owner legal protection of their intellectual property, they differ in the type of intellectual property they cover. Per the US Copyright Office FAQ, “protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.”

Trademarks cover signs including logos and brand names used for identification purposes by a trader. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, “A trademark includes any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination, used, or intended to be used, in commerce to identify and distinguish the goods of one manufacturer or seller from goods manufactured or sold by others, and to indicate the source of the goods. In short, a trademark is a brand name.”

A copyright work enjoys protection on the form of its expression, not the subject matter. An example would be the specific description of the design of a camera. This description could be copyrighted, but this would only mean that another party could not copy the description; it does not prevent another part from producing a description of their own to the same effect, or from manufacturing and using the camera itself. Additionally, bare phrases, slogans and trade names are not protected under copyright law.

A registered trademark provides protection for words, phrase and logos used in commerce for the purpose of identifying the source or point of origin of goods and services. Trademark rights allow trademark owners to prevent other parties from using a confusingly similar mark, but not from making the same goods, or offering the same goods or services for sale under a substantially different mark. Where a person is interested in protecting a brand, title, slogan, or other short word or phrase, they would generally be seeking to register a trademark.