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Singapore Copyright – One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure

The facts of the recent Singapore Court of Appeal case of Obegi Melissa and Others v Vestwin Trading Pte Ltd [2008] SGCA 4 were as follows. The defendants were judgment creditors of the plaintiffs. The defendants filed affidavits exhibiting documents (which the plaintiff claimed were confidential) to enforce a New York judgment against PT Indah Kiat Pulp & Paper Corporation (“PT Indah Kiat”). The plaintiffs were not parties to that suit. The defendants had engaged private investigators to locate assets in Singapore belonging to PT Indah Kiat. The investigators had made frequent trips to the plaintiff’s office building and retrieved the plaintiffs’ trash bags from the building’s common rubbish dump.

The High Court had held that it was untenable for the defendants to contend that the plaintiffs had abandoned the documents by putting them out as rubbish for collection such that they could not assert property rights in the documents.

In a judgment penned by VK Rajah JA, the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court’s decision, deciding that the following questions of fact and/or law were triable and not suitable for summary judgment:

1. Had the allegedly confidential documents had been abandoned or converted? Were the defendants liable for breach of confidence?

The law on abandonment was not settled in Singapore. As VK Rajah JA correctly pointed out, rubbish disposal occurs in our daily lives, and whether your rubbish is protected by the laws of confidence was a matter of significant public importance, for both corporations and individuals. There were no recent English decisions on the point – the High Court had relied on the 1957 UK case of Williams v Phillips (1957) 41 Cr App Rep 5, where dustmen had removed for their own benefit certain commercially valuable items which they found in the rubbish they had collected. The dustmen were charged with and convicted of theft and appealed to the Court of Appeal. Furthermore, there were several important findings of fact to be made before the respondents’ claim could be properly determined.

2. Does the use of such allegedly confidential documents in legal proceedings constitute a breach of confidence?

3. Does equity continue to impose an obligation of confidence where such documents are surreptitiously withheld from a party who has a legitimate interest in seeking their disclosure?

This judgment should sound warning bells to all investigators and lawyers, some of whom have thus far generally thought it completely acceptable to rummage through the other party’s trash to gather evidence for potential litigation. It is also a timely reminder to all potential litigants (and lawyers) to shred any documents before putting out the trash.