Thursday, December 29, 2011

A fair compensation for infringement of copyright

About six years ago, a website owner sued more than a hundred companies and government bodies for the unauthorized use of the digital maps provided in their website. The amount claimed was over $3,000 per map. The amount claimed was clearly exorbitant, as the loss of revenue suffered by the website or the cost of producing the map was nowhere near the amount claimed.

It was likely that nearly all of these parties were not aware that they were infringing the copyright. Some of these used parties had used more than 10 maps, so the total amount claimed was quite substantial.

To my knowledge, most of the infringing parties settled the claims out of court by paying the website owner close to the amount claimed, perhaps after a small discount. It was quite sad that the leaders of these large companies and government bodies were not prepared to fight in court against an excessive and unconscionable claim, and were prepared to pay a hefty sum of money (using the monies of their shareholders and taxpayers) just to avoid the negative publicity about being sued.

The website owner must have collected several million dollars of settlement from these parties. The legal claims were handled by a lawyer that specialized in making these legal claims. The lawyer firm must have collected a large amount of legal fees from these cases.

I personally knew about a company that was sued. The staff had used more than 10 digital maps a few years earlier and was not aware that he was infringing the copyright. That company refused to pay the exorbitant claim but offered an amount representing their estimate of the cost of producing the maps. The website owner took the case to court but finally dropped the case. Details of the out of court settlement was not disclosed. This was perhaps the only case that went to court.

I heard another story (but not verified) that a local university had paid more than one million dollars to settle a copyright claim where a student had uploaded a video, without permission, into the university's website. I was shocked at the purported amount of the settlement over a trivial matter, especially as the payment was probably made out of public funds. I could not image any justification for the video clip owner to receive such a large payment,which is tantamount to an extortion! This could be just a rumour.

Nevertheless, I wish to call on our Ministry of Law to pass a law to clarify the principles to determine the amount of compensation that should be paid for the use of copyright materials. The lack of clarity has led to an unsatisfactory situation where legal firms, which specialize in making these types of claims, could claim exorbitant amounts, and the sued parties were forced to make exorbitant payments due to the lack of clarity.

7 comments:

Soodo said...

My first year as a foreign student in a western democracy. I was astounded and extremely uneasy about the gray areas that existed. I kept asking my western friends "shouldn't there be a law that clarified this?"
My friends patiently explained to me. Their western culture prefers principles rather than explicit laws.

Simple example.
I was taking driving lessons.
I was on a 2-way road. Single lane on each side.
There was a parked car on my side of the road.
Another car was approaching me from the opposite side.
I asked my driving instructor; "Should I speed up to overtake the parked car on my side of the road?"
He was amused and astounded.
He told me gently "The obstruction is on your side of the road. So you should slow down and give way to the oncoming car"

There was no highway code for such a situation.
To my driving instructor and his countrymen, it's just common sense and courtesy. (i.e. a principle)
No need to add yet another piece of legislation to the matter.
They preferred to live with the potential ambiguity to preserve their freedom from excessive laws.

Soodo said...

Dear Mr Tan
Firstly, I applaud your courage & leadership in standing up for your principles and beliefs.

Secondly though, I have reservations about getting Ministry of Law involved to pass yet more rules & regulations.
Rules & regulations are not a substitute for courage & leadership.
Singapore already has too many rules & regulations. Examples would be buying a car or a HDB flat.

If the leaders had the courage to fight it out in the courts, the courts would have clarified the principles through their judgements.

In general, Anglo Saxon societies & culture (by way of comparison) prefer general principles to excessive and explicit laws.
They believe principles to be more flexible and better able to remain relevant with the passage of time.

yujuan said...

About the lawsuit taken against Yahoo
by SPH, on the surface looks like infringement of copyright against the internet giant, but dig deeper, it's political pressure at play.
This GE year 2011, Yahoo has been giving a lot of space to Singapore opposition parties politics, and that angers the PAP Govt, and it is using its mouthpiece to take revenge.
Another form of stifling political dissent, who is SPH trying to kid.
Even though Yahoo is no match in the PAP friendly Judiciary Court, counter-suing is a must for Yahoo to uphold its reputation and Rights.

Tan Kin Lian said...

@Soodo
What should be the principle to determine the amount of compensation to be paid for infringement of copyright? Should it be a million dollars, or the amount of loss that is suffered by the copyright owner? The lack of clarity gives room for lawyers to make big demands and add to the cost in society.

Soodo said...

Dear Mr Tan
May I humbly offer the following viewpoints on the case in question.
There are a number of principles at stake. A lawyer would like;y give a better reply, but I'll give it my best;

a)Should the law governing this website company be legislated by an Act of Parliament OR should it be determined in a court by judges and lawyers arguing it out?

I understand that in Russia, all the laws are enacted by the government. There are laws for everything.
Problem is many of the laws overlap and contradict each other.

b) I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure no judge would accept $3,000 per map without asking a whole lot of questions.

Including whether the company makes more money from suing people as opposed to revenues from use of its maps.
A lawyer may wish to comment here.

c)Singaporeans tend to avoid litigation. It's good if the litigation is frivolous.
Bad, if by avoiding litigation, we allow bad things to flourish.

A properly functioning democracy requires its citizens to stand up and fight for their rights.

As an American friend once told me. In America, you have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But you have to fight to enforce and claim those rights. It's not going to be given to you.
So if I'm an American and I'm called a "chink", America expects me to stand up and fight to enforce my rights.

For a very long time, American blacks were supposed to sit at the back of buses. As part of segregation. Until one day, a black woman refused. And decided to enforce her rights guaranteed under the American constitution.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montgomery_Bus_Boycott

Tan Choon Hong said...

The demands are really exorbitant. A fee of $200 – $300 should suffice. Before the internet, I paid around $300 to the government survey dept to use a location map which I drew myself! The operating principle then was that all maps must have had their source in government surveys, so I had to pay. Mercifully, this ruling has been revoked. The huge sums demanded by the map owners are more punitive than compensatory, and clearly profiteering from the missteps of others.

Soodo said...

Dear Mr Tan
Here is another example of western culture "principles rather than explicit laws and regulations".

See Straits Times. 5 January 2012. Page A32. Slice of Life - iPad now an iPassport? Top right hand corner of page.

During my 4 year stay (20 years ago), I was constantly amazed at the amount of discretionary powers and initiative displayed by seemingly "low level" immigration officers.
This Straits Times article tells me that not much has changed.

The principle being applied by the USA immigration officer is;
a)there is no regulation that explicitly says that the iPad was not acceptable
b)therefore I, the immigration officer on duty am empowered to make that decision.

Contrast with the reaction of Singapore's two security officers who first discovered that Mas Selamat had escaped from their custody.

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