The Streetdirectory.com Saga
SIM JUNHUI (Juris Sub-Editor)
Any well-informed Singaporean would be acquainted with the online website Streetdirectory.com and its useful maps of Singapore. Encounter an unfamiliar street name or building, and a quick dash to the computer will solve all problems. Today’s Internet-savvy world no longer requires recourse to poring over printed material.
However, Virtual Map (Singapore) Ptd Ltd, the company providing this online map-service, had recently been embroiled in a series of legal disputes. One such case may help as a springboard for further thoughts on copyright law and the idea of intellectual property.
In Virtual Map (Singapore) Ptd Ltd v. Suncool International Pte Ltd,  2 Sing. L.R. 157, Virtual Map brought an action against Suncool International Ptd Ltd for copyright infringement after it reproduced on its own website a cartographic image found on Virtual Map’s website. The court granted summary judgment in Virtual Map’s favour. Appealing to the High Court, Suncool claimed that triable issues existed and that summary judgment should not have been granted. Suncool alleged that Virtual Map did not enjoy independent copyright in its maps because copyright in the raw cartographic materials remained in the Singapore Land Authority, which should have been joined in the suit.
To satisfy the court that Virtual Map had independent copyright in its maps, the High Court judge held that it must have expended “skill, effort and labour in creating the work”. A person may acquire independent copyright in his work even if it is derived in part from an initial source in which he has no copyright. Through skill, effort and labour, translated into “material alteration or embellishment” of the initial source, the person can transform the initial source into a new original work. He is then awarded copyright over this new original work, notwithstanding and independently of the initial source and any copyright over it.
On the facts, the judge was satisfied that Virtual Map expended skill, effort and labour to create its maps. Virtual Map thus acquired copyright over its new original work notwithstanding and independently of its initial source of SLA’s cartographic work and raw material.
This idea of expending skill, effort and labour brings to mind John Locke and his ideas on labour and property. Briefly, John Locke opined that property was the result of labour. Through one’s efforts, one acquired property in objects which did not previously belong to anyone. Thus, by expending one’s labour in picking a fruit from a tree which belongs to no one, one acquires property in the fruit. Likewise, biting the fruit, chewing it and swallowing transforms it into one’s property.
These ideas of labour and property no longer seem to have much effect on our lives in the physical world . Where most has been “propertised”, there is little that remains untouched to be acquired through one’s labours. No land remains out there to be seized by some adventurer. Nor, I daresay, are there any fruits left unclaimed, waiting to be picked.
But things are not quite the same in the world of ideas, and this is the case in the world online, or in the real world. After all, ideas remain the same, wherever they are. The only difference, perhaps, is that publication online is much easier than in print, explaining why copyright violations may be more rampant in cyberspace than in the real world. All the same, ideas are waiting to be discovered, distilled and made one’s own. They wait to be “propertised”. Through “skill, effort and labour”, we can carve out property in the intellectual, artistic, literary, dramatic or musical domains, amongst others. And they become ours to use and dispose of as we please.
The consumer might of course bewail his loss of ease of access to inexpensive data. But much has to be said about protecting intellectual property, wherever it is found. This is not a question of mere cost, but of the fundamental idea of property – the concept of meum et tuum. To live in a world without the concept of property, where there is no yours or mine, is often unimaginable nowadays. Communism was the latest advocate of a property-less society – and we know how that turned out. If one obtains something by the sweat of one’s brow, it is generally not easily surrendered. If one knows that no matter the effort put into one’s work, it will belong not to oneself, but to all and sundry, including those who neither work nor labour, one would unsurprisingly be disinclined to continue. Thus, unsurprisingly, the idea of a property-less society, or at least one in which all have property in everything, is unlikely to truly thrive and succeed. Therefore, the average consumer should look past his own immediate gain to see and respect the skill, effort and labour of others.
This brings us back to Virtual Map. One may invest skill, effort and labour in something and claim a copyright in it. It becomes one’s property and one’s own. One may defend it from the incursions of others. But if that something came illegally from someone else, and if that someone else can establish his own copyright in that something, then one might just have walked into a nasty legal pit.
Ironically, Virtual Map was itself sued by the Singapore Land Authority for breach of copyright for using their materials without permission. This was of course the high-profile case of Virtual Map (Singapore) Pte Ltd v Singapore Land Authority,  2 Sing. L.R. 558. Perhaps Virtual Map did not understand the basic principle that if it wanted its own intellectual property to be respected, it ought to have respected that of others. Therein lies a lesson that everyone should learn.