Facts of the Case
In this case, a well-established Singapore property / real estate listings website PropertyGuru sued a relatively younger startup competitor 99.co for breach of a settlement agreement, tort of inducement of breach of contract (by PropertyGuru’s users), and copyright infringement. Much of the case centred on Xpressor app, an app which allowed cross-posting or cross-listing on multiple property listings platforms. It was found that 99.co had co-developed the app: at . The Xpressor app allows users to log in to their PropertyGuru account and choose the listings therein to cross-post onto 99.co’s website: at .
When 99.co first started, it employed a software to “scrape” listings on PropertyGuru’s website and post them on 99.co’s website. Sometime around 2015, the two competitors entered into a Settlement Agreement. This prohibited 99.co from, inter alia, reproducing content from PropertyGuru’s website onto their own. Sometime around August 2016, 99.co offered its users a Premium Account service where it employed independent contractors to manually copy information in property agent’s listings on PropertyGuru and list it on 99.co: at .
Breach of Settlement Agreement
On PropertyGuru’s breach of settlement agreement claim, the Court found that there was insufficient evidence for this claim regarding some January and February 2016 reproductions on 99.co’s website (which had photographs bearing PropertyGuru’s watermark) because it was plausible that the property agents who made these listings had used other means to reproduce them. Based on the evidence, it was likely that these reproductions were not done through the Xpressor app because by then, the app made sure to remove the watermark before cross-posting: at -. The Court also rejected the argument that 99.co had reproduced the listings simply by developing, marketing, and hosting on its server, the Xpressor app; it remained the individual property agent’s decision whether or not to cross-post listings, not 99.co’s: at .
However, the Court did find that the reproduction of 9 photographs through the Premium Account service amounted to a breach of the settlement agreement and thus awarded damages to be assessed and an injunction restraining 99.co from continuing breaches: at . It should be noted also that the Judge had to address an argument that the Premium Account service point was not expressly pleaded by PropertyGuru.
The Court also rejected arguments that 99.co had breached the Settlement Agreement by connecting to PropertyGuru’s website to cross-post listings. The Court found that it was the end users of the Xpressor app who connected to PrpoertyGuru’s website, not 99.co: at -. The Judge also made some comments on the odd drafting of the relevant clauses in the Settlement Agreement: at .
Tort of Inducement of Breach of Contract
However, because there was no evidence that the property agents did actually use the Xpressor app to make cross-postings, the claim on this head failed: at -. As regards the Premium Account service, the Court rejected the claim on this evidence because it was not expressly pleaded that this was a mode by which 99.co induced property agents to breach their contract with PropertyGuru: at -. Unlike the earlier head where the matter of Premium Account services could be seen as evidence, in this instance, PropertyGuru did not amend its Statement of Claim to expressly nail its case down.
The Court also rejected this claim. The issue was whether PropertyGuru owned copyright in the photographs which it obtained from property agents and which it then edited by resizing them, altering their light balance, softening the edges, and adding a watermark: .
The Court reviewed three decisions—Interlego AG v Tyco Industries Inc  AC 217 (“Interlego”); The Reject Shop Plc v Robert Manners  FSR 870; Virtual Map (Singapore) Pte Ltd v Suncool International Pte Ltd  2 SLR(R) 157 (“Virtual Map”)—and held that “the copying, enlargement or resizing of an artistic work, such as a drawing, painting or photograph, does not make the resulting image a copyrighted work. There must be a material alteration or embellishment to the original work to confer originality (and hence copyright protection) on the resulting work. What counts as “material” for this purpose is a question of fact and degree. There was some alteration in Interlego, namely the addition of new written information to the drawing, but this was insufficient to confer originality on what was otherwise a visually similar copy of an image. On the other hand, Virtual Map provided a clear example of a material alteration. While the alteration in that case was extremely substantial, it does not mean that alterations to an original work must necessarily be to a similar degree before the derivative work becomes original and copyrightable”: at .
The Court found that PropertyGuru’s editing of the photographs did not amount to an original work which gave rise to copyright: at -. There was no “skill and labour as conferred originality of an artistic character” (at , ).
Groundless Threats of Infringement Proceedings
Finally, the Court considered 99.co’s counterclaim for PropertyGuru’s groundless threats of infringement proceedings under section 200 of the Copyright Act. The Court rejected the counterclaim. First, it thought that PropertyGuru was justified in thinking that it had basis to sue 99.co: at . Second, 99.co did not adduce evidence of loss. It merely asserted that the threat of the lawsuit affected its ability to obtain funding and strained its relationship with its investors, but there was no evidence for this: at .
Comments on Wider Repercussions and Other Issues to Consider
In this case, the terms were deemed as merely an assertion of copyright. But the Court found there’s no copyright in the edited watermarked photographs.
Copyright In Edited Images
As the Court held, there must be material alteration or embellishment to become original new work giving rise to copyright. Resizing, altering light balance, softening edges and adding watermarks to a photograph does not amount to material alteration or embellishment to make the work an original new work with copyright conferred on the editor.
This is important for web users (which is almost all of us), platforms, apps, websites, which edit images and content uploaded online. This may not be original new work. It may even amount to copyright infringement of the first work.
Some of us use cross-posting applications, software, platforms. This case highlights that the mechanism of how content is cross-posted or cross-listed on multiple platforms can have legal repercussions.
If the app takes content from a first platform and post on other platforms, then there may be issues of whether the first platform has copyright over the content, and whether that copyright has been infringed.
If the app takes content direct from the app user and post on multiple platforms, then likely there is no copyright infringement issue since the app is dealing with the app user’s copyright.
Hyperlinking, Crawling, Framing, Inline Linking
There was no discussion on whether hyperlinking, crawling, framing, deep linking, inline linking, etc. would amount to IP infringement. In this case, the issue only arose as a matter of a breach of contract, and even so, there was no evidence for the claim.
Generally hyperlinking to the home page of a website is unlikely to raise issues. Deep linking – linking to a particular page within another website rather than the homepage – is uncertain but per se is unlikely to constitute IP infringement (based on decisions and authoritative opinions from other jurisdictions). Also, framing (creating frames on the web page which load another person’s website) and inline/embedding/img-src linking (i.e. in simple HTML code, <img src=”some third party image”>) is also uncertain.
Although this was not an issue in the case at all, platforms, websites, apps, should also be careful that their functionalities, including hyperlinking, crawling and re-posting, does not amount to IP infringement by way of authorizing another person to breach IP. For copyright, granting or purporting to grant a right to a third party to do a copyright infringing act would incur authorization liability. The law in Singapore on this, reflected in the Court of Appeal’s landmark decision in the RecordTV case, is calibrated narrowly. Various factors would be taken into account, including the relationship between the alleged authorizer and the direct infringer, whether the alleged authorizer had actual or constructive knowledge of the infringement, whether the alleged authorizer had the ability to prevent infringement.
All in all, 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. It also raises important questions for all of us as to the rights and obligations we have when we use various platforms, websites or apps, or the rights and intellectual property we are assigning and thus giving away. It should be noted that either party may appeal this decision to the Court of Appeal, so we shall wait and see if there are any further developments on this.