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Singapore – Copyright Infringement Confirmed As Copyright Infringement Suit of a Virtual Map Runs Its Course

A long running legal saga has now come to an end with the Singapore Court of Appeal’s decision that Virtual Map (VM) had no further right to appeal against the High Court’s decision finding them guilty of infringing the Singapore Land Authority’s (SLA) copyright in it’s street directory vector data and it’s address point vector data.


Prior to the original copyright suit, VM entered into seven non-exclusive licenses with SLA regarding the use of the Authority’s maps and address point data to produce maps available on VM’s website www.streetdirectory.com. These license agreements were terminated as of 10 July 2004 for reasons that were disputed, but as it was never contended that they were terminated wrongfully, these reasons were deemed to have no direct bearing on the dispute and hence were never explored further other than by way of background.

A letter from SLA’s solicitor then followed 10 days after the termination of the license agreement demanding that VM stop using material substantially reproduced from SLA’s works. After a flurry of correspondences, a copyright suit then ensued, claiming that VM’s online maps were reproductions of

a) The maps in all editions of the Singapore Street Directory

b) SLA’s street directory vector data; and

c) SLA’s address point vector data.

In the District Court, it was found that that there was sufficient originality in the works for SLA’s copyright to subsist, and while there was insufficient evidence to prove that the copyright in a) had been infringed upon, it was clear that VM’s online maps were modeled on SLA’s vector data, and that substantial nature of the copying constituted an infringement of SLA’s copyright in b) and c). This decision was unreservedly endorsed by the High Court, culminating in the hearing concerning VM’s right to appeal to the Court of Appeal.

The Decision

Having decided that leave to appeal under section 34(2)(a) of the SCJA was required, it was then examined in the Court of Appeal whether leave to appeal ought to be granted. Following the principles governing grant of leave to appeal first established in Lee Kuan Yew v Tang Liang Hong [1997] 3 SLR 489, the court found that there were 3 limbs in which VM could rely upon when leave of appeal was sought:

a) Prima facie case of error;

b) Question of general principal decided for the first time; and

c) Question of importance upon which further argument and a decision of a higher tribunal would be to the public advantage.

Finding no real grounds for granting leave to appeal on the first limb, the court then went on to consider whether there were any such grounds in respect of the second and third limb. In particular, much of the discussion revolved around the question of substantiality as prescribed in s10(1)(b) of the Copyright Act:

10. —(1) In this Act, unless the contrary intention appears —

(b) a reference to a reproduction, adaptation or copy of a work shall be read as including a reference to a reproduction, adaptation or copy of a substantial part of the work, as the case may be.

It was contended by VM that the alleged copying fell under the classification of “altered copying” and that the question of substantiality as above had yet to be resolved in such copying. With reference to the House of Lords decision in Designers Guild Ltd v Russell Williams (Textiles) Ltd [2000] 1 WLR 2416 which was heavily referenced in the District and High Court decisions, VM noted that there appeared to be differing requirements of substantiality adopted by Lord Millett and Lord Scott. While the former opined that the pirated part should be considered on its own and its importance to the copyright work assessed without the need for reference to the infringing work, the latter was of the opinion that for “altered copying” the infringing work should be compared against the copyright work for similarities. This disparity was what VM argued needed to be resolved by the Court of Appeal in the interest of the public, thus allowing it to obtain grant of leave to appeal under the third limb as above.

The decision then hinged on whether this was, in fact, a case of altered copying, whereby VM would have incorporated sufficient modifications of its own as compared to wholesale reproduction of the copyrighted work. VM, quite understandably, relied heavily on a statement by the High Court judge seemingly explicitly endorsing their stand that this was indeed a case of “altered copying”.

However, this was argument was again refuted by the Court of Appeal, which found the High Court’s decision in totality to be a complete endorsement of the District Court’s finding that while it certain aspects could have been considered “altered copying”, it was ultimately a case normal copying. More saliently, they found the aforementioned view to be a finding of fact at first instance, and concurring with the District Court’s decision, dismissed VM’s leave to appeal.


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