Legal

Freelancer’s Guide to Copyright Law in Singapore

Understand your rights as a freelance creator under Singapore's copyright laws (including how it helps you charge more for your work!)

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When clients engage you, you’re providing two things:

  1. Your services
  2. The work that you create as part of your services

Your freelance rate probably already takes (1) into account. But what about (2)?

Because clients will most likely want to own the works that you create—which means you can charge extra for that. $_$

This is thanks to a legal concept called copyright, which is a powerful tool for further monetising your skills.

If you know how, that is.

New to copyright, or not sure what it covers? Then read on to learn what you need to know about copyright law as a freelancer in Singapore 👇

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What is copyright?

If you own the copyright in a work, this means that you—and only you—are allowed to distribute the work, such as:

  • Making a copy of it (which is why you can think of copyright as the “right to copy“)
  • Sharing it
  • Publishing it
  • Publicising it

Copyright protects many types of creative works that freelancers make (especially if you’re in the creative industry). Examples of these works are:

Type of work Examples
✍️ Literary works Blog posts, ad copy, song lyrics
🎼 Musical works Melodies
🎨 Artistic works Drawings, infographics, photos, sculptures
🎥 Cinematograph films Videos
🔊 Sound recordings CD recordings

For other types of works, your rights in them may be protected by other types of intellectual property laws.

For example, if you’ve made an invention, then that work would be protected by patent laws instead of copyright laws.

Why is copyright important for freelancers?

If you own the copyright in the work, then only you can distribute the work in the ways stated above.

This is a huge superpower to have.

Because if someone else (such as a client) wants to use your work in a certain way, then they will have to ask for your permission.

(This is known as getting a “licence” to use your work, in legal-speak.)

And in exchange for granting such permission, you’re perfectly entitled to charge them money.

For example, does a client want to:

  • Publish your writing on their blog? You can charge them for it.
  • Use your music in their corporate video? You can charge them for it.
  • Post your photos on their Instagram account? You can—okay, you get my drift.

Cha-ching. 💰💰

Clients know this—which is why when they engage your freelance services, they will usually want to own the copyright in the work.

This way, they’ll be able to do whatever they want with your work without asking you first.

As a result, you can charge more to give (aka “assign”) such copyright to them!

Before you can do so, however, you’re going to need to own the copyright in the work.

Which brings me to my next point:

How do you own the copyright to a work you’ve created? Do you need to register your work first?

The good news is that in Singapore, the creator of the work is generally the first owner of the copyright to it.

This means that when you create a work, you’ll automatically own the copyright in it. Even if:

  • You don’t register the copyright (copyright registration isn’t required in Singapore)
  • You don’t put the copyright symbol ©️ in/somewhere on your work

HOWEVER, there are exceptions.

Currently, if a client engages you to:

  • Take photos,
  • Do a painting, drawing or sculpture, or
  • Create a sound recording or film,

then the client will be the first owner of the copyright in these works.

This is unless you and the client agree otherwise.

But this is going to change!

From around November 2021 onwards, Singapore’s copyright laws will change to make the creator the first copyright owner of such works—even if they had been commissioned.

This means that if the client wants the copyright to your works (and they likely will), then you are entitled to charge more for it.

Personally, though, I believe that regardless of whoever first owns the copyright, you should still factor the handing over of it to your client into your rates.

In other words, even if you will be the first owner of the copyright in your work, you should be prepared to hand such copyright over to your client. Then, charge accordingly.

But the changes to the copyright laws may put you in a stronger position to negotiate a higher fee for giving the copyright to your client.

Do people need to credit you when using your work?

This issue might come up when you see that someone has posted your work online without your permission, and without crediting you.

The answer is that you currently aren’t entitled to credit. At the moment, you have only the right to tell people if they’ve mistakenly credited someone else as the creator of your work.

But this legal position is changing from November 2021, too.

When that happens, a person who uses your work will have to credit you when doing so, and in a clear and reasonably prominent manner.

By right, if you own the copyright to the work, then such users should have sought your permission to use your work in the first place, to avoid copyright infringement.

(More on copyright infringement below.)

But even if they don’t, then at least you will still be entitled to credit.

Does this legal change mean that your freelance clients will have to credit you when they use your work?

It seems so, unless your situation falls into an exception, such as:

  • Your work is a computer program
  • Your client is the Singapore government and the published version of your work doesn’t state who created it

Singapore’s copyright laws generally apply only in Singapore

(i.e. they are “territorial”)

As a result, the works you create for overseas clients may not be covered by Singapore’s (current or future) copyright laws.

This is unless the client is in a country that Singapore has copyright agreements with, such as the US.

In cases where Singapore’s copyright laws don’t or may not apply, be prepared to negotiate copyright issues with your client more.

For example, if the client wants to own the copyright to your work, then factor this into your rates.

When doing so, however, you may need to understand how other countries’ copyright laws work.

(E.g. if the client is asking you to sign a contract governed by their country’s laws, instead of Singapore’s)

If so, consider seeking legal advice from a lawyer in that country.

What can you do if someone has infringed on your copyright?

As mentioned, if you own the copyright in the work, then others are not allowed to distribute it without your permission.

For example, they can’t post your work online without asking you first.

But what if they’ve done so, and you don’t like it?

In this case, you can reach out to them and request that they take your work down.

Of course, not everyone will agree to your request. They might not even bother to respond.

This is where it gets tricky (and potentially expensive 😳), because you might need to talk to a lawyer about your options and whether it’s worth pursuing them.

In ©️onclusion:

That’s the end of this crash course on copyright laws for Singapore freelancers!

There’s a lot more to copyright than what’s been covered above. But I hope this guide has helped give you a basic understanding of copyright, and empowered you to further monetise your skills.

And if there’s only one thing that you take away from this guide, let it be this:

👉 If clients want to own or use your work, then charge them for it! 👈

To learn more about copyright laws in Singapore, check out this Copyright Infopack published by Singapore’s intellectual property agency, the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS).

Or if you’re facing a copyright issue that you need legal advice on, please consult a copyright lawyer!

Tan Siew Ann
Fuelled by a long-standing interest in media, Siew Ann ventured into digital marketing while in law school and has not looked back since. Being inspired by the struggles that she and others have faced while freelancing in Singapore, Siew Ann started lancerX to help freelancers turn their craft into sustainable and meaningful full-time businesses.

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