And you thought a circuit breaker was just a little switch in your electrical circuit box.
In the island state of Singapore, circuit breaker is the new buzzword which has taken on a very different context since the COVID-19 pandemic. It refers to precautionary measures instituted to break the chain of transmission of COVID-19 in the community. Foremost among these measures is the stay-at-home exhortation – people hunkering down within the confines of their home, living lives largely online.
And just like that – as MIT Technology Review author Will Heaven put it – our internet connection has become an umbilical to the outside world. Our online existence means that we are sharing and consuming digital content more than ever before. What are the implications for copyright law?
This article unmasks some possible pitfalls of copyright law in connection with the current digital trends; and – as an enhanced measure – we also look at further initiatives which are being rolled out to strengthen our copyright framework for these times, and beyond.
With an estimated 50% of the world's population in some form of "lockdown", the result is an unprecedented surge in internet activity and consumption of digital content. Forbes reported on 25 March 2020 that total internet hits have surged by between 50% and 70% according to preliminary statistics, while online streaming has increased by an estimated 12% at least. There is little doubt that these figures have likely increased at the time of writing.
Of course, the tech-savvy among us have long been harnessing social media platforms and other online tools to market, advertise and transact. So going digital is by no means a new phenomenon; but there has probably never been a more compelling time to do so. And it is not just businesses jumping on the digital bandwagon but the everyday consumer who is now living online.
Photographs, musical compositions, movie streaming, concerts, business presentations, lectures and tutorials, instructional materials, lesson plans, culinary demonstrations, fitness workouts – these are just some of our digital content consumed online, at work or at play. Communication tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet facilitate the real-time sharing of 'live' content, keeping us connected even as we remain physically apart.
What are some takeaways concerning the copyright implications of such sharing and consumption of online content? Here are some possible pitfalls:
Having safely distanced ourselves from these pitfalls, let us look more generally at our copyright framework in terms of new initiatives to enhance the relevance and effectiveness of an old law.
U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest in Goldman v Breitbart famously commented that "[w]hen the [U.S.] Copyright Act was amended in 1976, the words 'tweet' and 'viral' invoked thoughts of a bird and a disease…". These sentiments reflect the challenge of containing an ever evolving digital realm within an old legal framework (although, perhaps in one respect at least, the word 'viral' has come full circle to once again invoke thoughts of a physical ailment).
The Singapore Copyright Act (Cap 63) was enacted more recently than the U.S. Copyright Act amendments. However, that was still more than 30 years ago, before the advent of the Internet – which, in the digital economy of things, is down-right archaic. It most certainly did not contemplate online content sharing. Nevertheless, piecemeal legislative amendments have been introduced over the years to address discrete issues which have arisen as a consequence of technological development. For instance, provisions were introduced to the Copyright Act in 2014 to exempt online intermediaries from liability for copyright infringement in certain circumstances, and in 2016 to allow right holders to apply for injunctions to compel internet service providers to block access to websites which flagrantly infringe their copyright.
Aside from legislative changes, Singapore courts have affirmed that the provisions of the Copyright Act should be interpreted in a technologically-sensitive manner, and in a way that protects works created in the virtual space as much as it protects traditional works. These pronouncements embody the spirit of ensuring that the Copyright Act remains relevant in our brave new world.
In addition, new initiatives are being rolled out by the Ministry of Law for broad-based reforms to better support creators and enhance the enjoyment of creative works in this digital age. The amendments are expected to come into force in the later part of 2020. We highlight several proposals which are particularly relevant to our new work/study/play-from-home arrangement:
Even during this period of uncertainty, it is prudent to be mindful of copyright laws. Some may question the ethics around enforcement during such unprecedented times – individuals and businesses seeking compensation for infringement may be seen as opportunistic, and could incur public backlash if they appear to be profiting from this crisis. However, a strong intellectual property framework can serve as a powerful tool to help us adapt to technological change and spur economic recovery, as long as it is wielded fairly. Copyright remains an important intangible asset that businesses and entrepreneurs rely on to enhance their competitive edge and generate revenue, especially once this storm blows over.
Special thanks to trainee Teo Tze She for her contribution to the article.
This article is produced by our Singapore office, Bird & Bird ATMD LLP, and does not constitute legal advice. It is intended to provide general information only. Please note that the information in this article is accurate as at 11 May 2020. We will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates on any changes as soon as these are communicated to us. Please contact our lawyers if you have any specific queries.
 Goldman v Breitbart News Network, LLC (Case 1:17-cv-03144-KBF; United States District Court, Southern District of New York)(Judgment dated February 15, 2018).
 For instance, in the 2016 Singapore High Court case of Global Yellow Pages Ltd v Promedia Directories Pte Ltd and another matter  SGHC 9, it was held that copyright subsisted in contact listings found in an online directory. This finding was upheld on appeal.
 These proposed reforms preceded the outbreak of COVID-19, but their application and relevance to our present context are so timely that they seem almost a foreshowing of the pandemic.