In what 99.co founder and CEO Darius Cheung called “a victory for the internet,” 99.co won over PropertyGuru in a copyright lawsuit. The 99.co copyright case has loomed over the startup since last year.
In September 2017, PropertyGuru filed a case against 99.co for infringing copyright infringement. Why? Because the 99.co website had photos bearing PropertyGuru’s watermark.
To Cheung and his team, it was obvious that PropertyGuru’s claim didn’t hold any water. After all, the photos had been uploaded by 99.co users, the image creators.
These photos were first uploaded onto PropertyGuru’s platform, where they were edited to include the site’s watermark. Then, some of these users used a third-party app to transfer these edited photos to the 99.co website.
“Naturally, we believe that the rights of the content belong to the content creators,” wrote Cheung in a blog post.
“If you were to upload a photo to Facebook or Instagram or eBay — these sites do not and should not automatically get the rights [to] your photo simply by adding watermarks or basic modification — and that the rights to the photo ultimately still belong to the user.”
The judge’s ruling
Here’s what Judge Hoo Sheau Peng said in her March 9 ruling:
“Copying, enlargement or resizing of an artistic work, such as a drawing, painting or photograph, does not make the resulting image a copyrighted work. …The addition of the watermark does not, in my judgment, make the altered image an original work.”
(You can read the full judgment here, uploaded on the 99.co website.)
“For the first time it is made clear in the law that content creators continue to own the copyright to their photos, and adding watermark or resizing does not constitute ‘significant work’ and platforms cannot simply claim copyright ownership of the published content,” Cheung tells AsianMoneyGuide.com.
“This is important as this means it is clear that platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and eBay do not own the rights to photos you submit to the site.”
PropertyGuru vs. 99.co copyright case: A David & Goliath battle
PropertyGuru is Southeast Asia’s largest real estate portal, and with 99.co being a relatively new company (the startup was founded in 2013), this trial had a sort of David and Goliath dynamic.
While he thinks that taking this case to court was the right decision, Cheung says that in general, other startups should avoid taking a legal suit all the way to court. “It is simply way too expensive and distracting and it’s so hard to predict the outcome,” he tells AsianMoneyGuide.com. “It would be best to negotiate for something and settle it quickly.”
In his blog post, Cheung called the trial “gruesome, expensive, and time-consuming.” But now that they won the case, he says that it has cleared the path for them to go “full steam ahead.”
What does this mean for content creators?
This is a significant win for content creators — one that might even make its way into future law school textbooks. With no direct precedent, the judge’s ruling is encouraging for content creators, but what does it really mean? To get a clearer idea of the impact of this case, we reached out to some lawyers via AsiaLawNetwork.com to give their comment on this case.
“While this decision does not lay down any new law, it is nonetheless interesting because of the application of law to relatively new and evolving technology and scenarios,” says Ronald JJ Wong, Director of Covenant Chambers LLC.
Wong says that this case raises an important question: What are our rights when we use various platforms, websites, or apps?
“Many of us use these platforms and enter into legally binding contracts with them without realising what we agreed to,” Wong says, adding that it all comes down to how the terms are constructed.
In the case of PropertyGuru, the terms were deemed as “merely an assertion of copyright,” he says. But it was an assertion that the Court judged as unfounded, as there’s no copyright in edited watermarked photographs.
The court held that a work should have “material alteration or embellishment” to become an original new work that can be copyrighted. Simply resizing, correcting the light balance, and adding watermarks aren’t enough.
This, Wong says, is important for almost all of us who use the internet. When we or someone else uploads slightly edited content online, this may not be original or new work. “It may even amount to copyright infringement of the first work.”
Who really owns our intellectual property?
Of course, if you were commissioned to create content (say, you’re a professional graphic designer), you are giving the ownership of your IP away.
Generally, however, this PropertyGuru vs. 99.co copyright case shows that the law is on the side of content creators. Authors are recognised as the owner of their work.
“This case reaffirms the fundamental principle that an author is generally the owner of his/her work, unless he/she is commissioned to carry out the work, and/or is an employee that carried out the work for the employer,” says Yingyu Wang, director of Taylor Vinters Via LLC.
What we post on Facebook, Stomp, or e-commerce sites? That content belongs to us.
Though this case has not had any direct precedent in Singapore law, there have been similar international suits.
- In 2010, photographer David Morel won a suit against AFP after the latter used his photos posted on his Twitter without his permission. The judge ruled that while Twitter allows users to post and retweet, it does not allow for commercial use of users’ photos.
- Artist Richard Prince was sued by photographer Patrick Cariou for using Cariou’s photos without his permission. The court initially ruled that the photos were an infringement because Prince wasn’t “commenting upon” the original photos. This decision was overturned because Prince has transformed the images enough for the infringement to be considered “fair use”.
There is still much to iron out and understand when it comes to IP in the digital world. But it’s good to know that the law recognises the rights of content creators. A victory for the internet, indeed.
We hope you found this article on the PropertyGuru vs 99.co copyright case informative!
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