The plaintiff, Virtual Map, is a leading location-based and mapping consultancy company in the Asia-Pacific region, with headquarters in Singapore. It operates the online, a popular website that enjoys heavy user traffic daily. Virtual Map had obtained a non-exclusive licence from the Singapore Land Authority ("SLA") who owns the copyright in the vector data. However, in order to produce the maps made available on its website, Virtual Map regularly conducts location surveys, purchases raw data, operates global positioning system (GPS) equipment and obtains feedback from users, to ensure the information is current.

Virtual Map’s website includes terms and conditions which inform a user that the copyright of the maps is owned by it and the maps may be downloaded upon paying a licence fee.

The defendant, Suncool International Pte Ltd, admitted that it had reproduced maps from the plaintiff’s website but disputed that the plaintiff enjoyed independent copyright in its maps. It contended that SLA who co-owned the copyright in the maps should have been joined as co-plaintiff and the plaintiff's failing to do so resulted in it having no locus standi to pursue an action for copyright infringement against the defendant.

In this regard, the appeal court affirmed the subordinate court’s decision which had applied the principle in the case of MacMillan Publishers Limited v. Thomas Reed Publications Limited [1993] FSR 455. This case states that where existing subject matter, in this case SLA’s base material, was used in creating a work, copyright could vest in the creator of the work if he expended sufficient skill and labour such as to make the work original. From the evidence adduced by the plaintiff, it was clear that the plaintiff had invested considerable skill, effort and labour in assimilating the various fragments of raw material into a usable map. New original work had been created based on the material obtained from SLA. Therefore, the plaintiff was entitled to the copyright in the map images in its own right.

The defendant further contended that its copying from the plaintiff’s website was not substantial to constitute infringement. The appeal court once again concurred with the subordinate court’s decision and held that where the work was a collection of separate works, each work must be considered individually, and the measurement of substantiality of copying cannot be made against the entire collection. The work that the defendant copied was a discrete map that formed part of a seamless collection. It was apparent that much skill, effort and labour had been expended in creating each map such that copyright attached to each individual map.

Accordingly, the defendant’s appeal was dismissed.

Virtual Map informed Streats, one of the local dailies in Singapore, that it had decided to take action against NTUC Income and other companies after it had lost major accounts. This happened when Virtual Map’s clients, who had paid up to about US$2,235 for a map, found out that others had obtained maps for free. Upon hiring an IT investigation firm to track down the freeloaders, Virtual Map learned that almost 100 Singaporean and foreign companies had downloaded maps from its website, without permission or a licence to do so. The maps were commonly used on their corporate websites to provide directions to their offices.

A large number of the companies were unaware that the downloading of information from the Internet was in contravention of any laws. Most of them upon being contacted by Virtual Map’s lawyers, had agreed to pay the costs for the licence fee as well as investigation and legal costs, rather than face a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

A common misconception amongst the public is that online downloads are free. This case however serves as a warning to Internet users that the mere making available of materials on the Internet does not mean that they are public domain materials without any copyright protection. Internet users should instead read the terms and conditions of use carefully and obtain the appropriate permission and/or pay the prescribed fees or royalties, in order to avoid the risk of costly copyright infringement actions. Ultimately, ignorance of the law is not an excuse.

The content of this article does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on in that way. Specific advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.