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Singapore – Do Celebrities have rights to their images?

You are walking down Orchard Road, and you are a Celebrity. Suddenly, out of nowhere, photographers jump out, whip out a camera, and start snapping pictures of you. The next day, your pictures are all over the front page news. What rights do you have to those pictures?

The Answer– very little.

Privacy Law

The Singapore Constitution does not contain any explicit right to privacy. There is also no general data protection or privacy law in Singapore. The relevant authority for publications in Singapore is the Media Development Authority (“MDA”). Publications are largely industry self-regulated.

The MDA’s guidelines are that images published to the Singaporean public should not constitute offensive and prohibited material – including pornography, material that advocates homosexuality or lesbianism, or glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious hatred, strife or intolerance.

So if you have no privacy in Singapore – what do you have as options? You need to then look to Common Law for assistance, and to the Law of Defamation.

Law of Defamation

Singapore has adjudicated on issues of privacy under the law of defamation.

In Chiam See Tong v Xin Zhang Jiang Restaurant, the Singapore High Court held that the use of the photograph of Chiam See Tong (a well-known opposition political figure), for commercial purposes was defamatory.

The judge stated:

“I considered the three advertisements on the basis set out above and also in the context of the commercial purposes of the defendants and the circumstances in which those advertisements were being circulated.

I came to the conclusion that all three advertisements were defamatory of the plaintiff and that to the ordinary English reader, who did not read Chinese, the photographic portrait suggested that the plaintiff had consented to the use of his photograph for publicity either for gain or to sponsor a private restaurant and that he had done so by taking advantage of his position as a Member of Parliament and also for the benefit of promoting himself as an advocate and solicitor.

In my view, a substantial proportion of the responsible and right-thinking English but non-Chinese readership would have thought less well of the plaintiff after reading the handbills. ”

This decision was followed in the case of Hanis v Integrated Information Pte Ltd.

Again photographs of a well-known Singapore model was used in advertisements of a social escort agency without her consent. The decision was based on defamation and infringement of copyright.

The judge said ‘The use of the print in the context of the advertisement for the social escort agency is defamatory as is evident from the reaction of those who telephoned the Plaintiff on seeing the advertisement.’

Several paragraphs later he held that ‘In view of the Plaintiff’s high profile modelling career and the wide circulation of the print in connection with the Action for Aids campaign, the advertisement with the pictorial representation identical with the print would be identified with the Plaintiff by a sizeable section of the public if not at least by those in or connected with the modelling industry. I therefore hold that the advertisement was defamatory of the Plaintiff.’

What about monetary compensation, you ask. Surely there is something in the Advertising Industry Laws or even Copyright Laws. The Answer, sadly, is a big resounding ZILCH.

Singapore Code of Advertising Practice

The Singapore Code of Advertising Practice (“the Code”) provides in its general principles that all advertisements must be truthful and avoid misleading the consumer. In particular, the Code provides that “Advertisements should not explicitly portray or refer to any person or his property unless his prior permission has been obtained.” and “Advertisements and sales promotions should not manipulate (such as through electronic morphing) any persons or his property to create a misleading or untruthful presentation.”

Nowhere does it state that the Advertiser need pay monetary compensation to the subject of the Photograph for using his or her image. Lets turn to Copyright Law for monetary compensation, then.

Copyright Issues

The key question in this case, is not the subject of the picture (ie you, the celebrity) but the source of these celebrity pictures. If the photographs have been sourced from a digital stock imagery database such as Getty Images or istockphoto, then the relevant database can take action – as Copyright of the image lies in the Photographer, and not you.

In summary, there is no separate body of law concerning privacy in Singapore. Any photographs, if taken well within the current relevant guidelines and codes, are prima facie, permissible for use. While the Advertising Code does state that permission needs to be obtained, it does not stipulate any penalties nor is there any law that does so expressly. A lesson to learn from the above cases though, is that It is always safer to ensure that if you intend to use a celebrity’s picture to endorse your goods, that you gain their permission or sign them up contractually.

So the next time you are walking down the street and see a camera – Smile!