Some knowledge of copyright law is important for professional photographers. These laws may impact not only the composition of your works, but also form the main framework within which you derive financial benefits from your works, whether through the grant of assignments or licences of these rights.

In an effort to enhance your understanding of copyright laws, PPAS conducts regular outreach talks and seminars and has also developed this brief outline with the help of Samuel Seow Law Corporation. Given its obvious brevity, this outline cannot replace legal counsel and advice. However, it is hoped that it provides you with a fundamental understanding of the subject of copyright and how it applies in your profession.


Copyright is a set of temporary rights conferred by the Copyright Act and granted to the owner of certain classes of works. In the realm of photography, these rights allow owners of photographic works to control the reproduction, publication and communication to the public (for example over the internet) of these works, and to sue for unauthorized use (also called “infringement”) of the same. These rights begin from the moment original photographic expressions are reduced into some material form. Copyright subsisting in a photograph continues to subsist until the expiration of 70 years after the expiration of the calendar year in which the photographic work is first published.

It must be brought to your attention that although most photographic works are capable of being protected under copyright, some are not.

To be capable of being protected under copyright, photographic works must firstly be original. Originality is essential to copyright protection. If your photograph is an exact reproduction of a previous work, no copyright may subsist in your photograph since it has no originality. In fact, if copyright still subsists in the previous work, you would even need to obtain the consent of the original photographer to reproduce it.

Secondly, copyright can only subsist in a work if the work is reduced into some material form. One of the most vital principles of copyright law is that copyright does not protect ideas, but protects the form by which the ideas are expressed. Therefore, an idea for a great photograph is not protected by copyright until the photograph is made. Having an idea also does not entitle a person to a share of the copyright in the photograph. The copyright belongs to the person who makes the tangible expression of the concept or idea.

Once copyright subsists in a work, any unauthorized use by a third party of a copyright work gives rise on the part of the owner civil causes of action for damages; and in certain circumstances may even attract criminal sanctions especially where the infringement is for commercial purposes and is significant in terms of volume.

There are also special laws for recovery of statutory or aggravated damages where a fixed compensatory sum is prescribed once the copyright owner can prove his ownership and breach of his copyright. In such circumstances, the copyright owner is not required to prove how much revenue or earnings he has lost as a result of the infringement which would usually be a difficult undertaking.


There is no need for photographers in Singapore to take any further steps to ensure that their completed works are protected under copyright laws. As stated above, the moment an original photographic work is reduced into material form, copyright subsists. However the convenience of a non-registration system often also results in situations where copyright infringements are difficult to prove. These occasions typically arise where it is difficult in any one case to ascertain exactly at which point of time a particular work was completed by a photographer; and whether another photographer who claims also to have written the work may have copied the first work.

In response to these problems, the Screenwriters Association (Singapore) (the ‘SWA’), in cooperation with Samuel Seow Law Corporation, established the Asian Script Repository (‘ASR’). The aims of the ASR are

(1) to assist copyright owners to assert their proprietorship over their works; and
(2) to assist copyright owners in establishing the completion dates of their works.
(3) Registration with the ASR provides a dated record of the creator’s claim to authorship of a particular work and helps to circumvent the problems in proving priority of ownership. Where necessary, Samuel Seow Law Corporation may produce deposited material as evidence of the material having been deposited with it as of a certain date by a certain person if legal action is required to be initiated. In this way third party independent evidence exists to help establish a creator’s claim to proprietorship and priority over any piece of work.


It is recommended that all photographic works carry a copyright notice, even though it is not required by law and even though the notices do not bestow any additional protection per se under the Copyright Act.

Copyright notices may serve to assist a photographer establish his claim of proprietorship in his works, but over and above that, they alert potential users of the work to whom they need to go to to obtain a licence to use the work. Copyright notices traditionally consist of 3 elements: the “©” copyright symbol, followed by the date of first publication of the photographic work, and the name of the owner of the work.

For example,

“© Professional Photographers Association (Singapore) 2009”


Generally, the person who creates a photographic work owns the copyright in the work. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Some of the exceptions are:

(1) Employment: If the work is created by an employee (not a freelancer) pursuant to the terms of his employment under a contract of employment or apprenticeship, the employer owns the copyright in the work;

(2) Special situation for newspaper/magazine/periodical employees: Where an employee of a newspaper, magazine or periodical creates a literary, dramatic or artistic work pursuant to the terms of his employment for the purpose of publication in a newspaper, magazine or periodical, the proprietor of the newspaper, magazine or periodical owns the copyright in respect of publication in or reproduction for the purpose of publication in any newspaper, magazine or periodical. The employee owns the remaining rights that make up the copyright bundle of exclusive rights; and

(3) Commissioning: If a portrait/photograph/engraving is commissioned by another party, the commissioner owns the copyright in the work. If the portrait/photograph/engraving is required for a particular purpose, this purpose must be communicated to the commissioned party. While the commissioner is the copyright owner, the commissioned party has the right to stop others from doing any act comprised in the copyright, unless such act is done for the particular purpose for which the portrait/photograph/engraving is created. For other types of commissioned works, ownership belongs to the commissioned party, unless the commissioner and commissioned party otherwise agree.

However, in addition to the exceptions stated above, as mentioned in the introduction to this outline, an owner of a photographic work may at any time elect to transfer his rights to another party or entity either partially or wholly so as to derive financial benefits from his creations.

If you are the owner of the copyrights in certain photographic works, you may be entitled to sell those works for cash by way of a full assignment; or you may license someone to use your works for payment by way of royalties. Under the law, a “licence”, although to a layperson conjurs imagery of governmental consents and approvals, merely refers to a permission to use the works with certain limitations.

Licences do not have to be granted in writing although we do advise that all photographers grant licences in written form so as to avoid subsequent disagreements and disputes. Licences may be granted in relation to works for particular usages. When negotiating licences, special attention should be paid to the following considerations:

  • Whether the licence is exclusive to the licensee or non-exclusive;
  • Whether the licensee has the right to grant sub-licences;
  • Whether the licence granted to the licensee is transferable by the licensee to a third party;
  • Geographical limitations of the licence;
  • Duration of the licence;
  • Restrictions on use: whether the licence is to allow for copying, transferring, modifying, etc; and
  • Restrictions as to media and platforms: eg, no online distribution rights

In all commercial negotiations, much depends on the respective bargaining powers of the negotiating parties. Do remember however that there is no cardinal rule which dictates that a photographer has to transfer all copyrights to a client. Remember also, that even though the client might be the originator of the concept or idea this does not entitle them to the copyright of the photograph which you, the photographer, originate.


In recent years, we have encouraged the trend to invoice clients of members of PPAS upon terms stating that any grants of rights to usage or ownership over photographic works to the client shall be contingent upon full payment by the client of the photographer’s invoice. Where grants of rights are stated to be so premised and contingent upon full payment, non-payment by a client may constitute both a breach of the client’s contractual obligations and infringement of copyright in and to the photographic works. The addition of these rights in your arsenal may prove powerful against errant clients.


It has been reported to us by photographers that it has become quite commonplace that photographers are prohibited by building owners from taking pictures of public buildings on the grounds that the photographers have “no rights” to take such photographs. For the avoidance of doubt, the Copyright Act is clear on this point. Under Section 64, the copyright in a building or a model of a building is not infringed by the making of a painting, drawing, engraving or photograph of the building or model or by the inclusion of the building or model in a cinematograph film or in a television broadcast.

Should you require any further advice or information, you may seek the advice of Samuel Seow Law Corporation, which authored this guide. You may also wish to check out the Publications on their website for the latest legal updates from around the world. These are frequently updated so as to bring you the most current state of IP laws.

Samuel Seow
Tel: +65 6887 3393

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