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The Singapore Copyright Tribunal – Recent Changes in the operational and jurisdictional aspects

In today’s fast-paced information age, technology continues to transform the business landscape at break-neck speed. It has not only changed the way we perceive and conduct conventional commerce but has also acted as a catalyst, facilitating the advent of new business models and drastically altering the rules of the game. The power unleashed by information technology across the globe has also hit the domain of Intellectual Property Rights in a big way. Landmark developments, sweeping through the world of copyrights and licensing, bear testimony to the fact.

In keeping up with the times, the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS) has initiated jurisdictional and operational reforms to the Copyright Act. As part of this endeavour, feedback was invited from various stakeholders – copyright owners, businesses, educational institutions, libraries, archives, scholars, researchers – and even the general public, to suggest changes to the existing Act and the working of Singapore’s Copyright Tribunal. Intense deliberations over the last one-year have finally culminated in the proclamation of the Copyright (Amendment) Act 2009, passed by the Parliament this September.

Since its inception in 1987, the Copyright Tribunal has been confined to reviewing a narrow range of licensing schemes and related issues, and as a result has been able to render only three decisions (in 1991, 1992 and 2006). Its jurisdiction and the determination of equitable remuneration payable have been limited only to certain specific cases – making copies of literary works by educational institutions for teaching purposes and making recordings / films of works for broadcasting purposes. Due to this narrow definition of ‘license’ in the Copyright Act, agreements for majority of works or derivative works have never been able to come within the purview of the Tribunal. A case in point is the public screening or reproduction of films, where due to the Tribunal’s limited powers, entertainment outlets had no recourse in case the license fee was overcharged or the copyright owners imposed unreasonable terms. As businesses started employing newer digital technologies to exploit copyrighted media works, copyright issues have further been exacerbated.

The new Act aims to widen the jurisdictional and operational powers of the Copyright Tribunal for better resolution of disputes between owners and users of copyrighted material. It will also enable the Tribunal to put a check on licensors that impose unreasonable licensing fees and terms. The definition of the word “license” has been broadened to ensure that the Tribunal hears disputes concerning remuneration and/or royalties payable in respect of licenses for all uses of all copyrighted works (including reproduction of music and films). On the other hand, the definition of “licensor” has been narrowed to exclude individual copyright owners and cover only collecting societies. This has been done to ensure that the rights of individual licensors are not limited owing to the overly broad powers of the Tribunal.

As a result of the new jurisdictional changes, to effectively manage the anticipated increase in Tribunal’s activity, the number of panel members has been increased, ensuring a sufficiently large pool to form a quorum during proceedings. For flexibility, rather than fixing this number under the Copyright Act, the Law Minister shall now be able to exercise discretion in fixing a particular number of members. This adjustment will help tune operational efficiency to the prevalent requirements. Further more, in order to retain flexibility in the hearing of cases, additional appointment of up to two Deputy Presidents has also been proposed so that quorums can be formed and cases heard concurrently in case the President is unavailable.

The amendments in the Copyright Act are thus intended to not only expand and clarify the Tribunal’s powers, but also to improve its operational efficiency in resolving disputes against the backdrop of continuing technological changes. They will also help strike a fair balance between ownership rights of copyright holders and the interests of users to have access to copyright works on reasonable terms.