2 hotel management firms found by High Court to have infringed copyright over use of photos

The High Court ruled that the firms, part of the General Hotel Management Group, had infringed on copyrights on photos in 12 issues of the group's magazine. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Two hotel management companies were found by the High Court to have infringed on a US firm's copyright to photographs of various luxury hotels.

The companies, which are part of the General Hotel Management Group (GHM), had used the photographs in 12 issues of the group's magazine.

They had argued in court proceedings that the owners of the hotels held the copyright to the photographs.

But Justice Mavis Chionh disagreed, holding in her judgment on Thursday (June 16) that a firm set up by entrepreneur and designer Lee Kar Yin is the copyright owner.

GHM manages, operates and promotes luxury hotels and resorts around the world. Current properties include The Chedi Andermatt in Switzerland.

Ms Lee, who has been working in the creative industry here since 1990, set up various companies to carry out her work. They include The Wave Studio, which was incorporated in the United States to hold and manage the intellectual property rights to her literary and artistic works.

Between 1995 and 2008, Ms Lee and three of her companies were engaged by GHM to provide a range of services to various hotels managed by the group. These services included the production of marketing, branding and promotional materials for the hotels.

In the course of producing the materials, the companies hired contractors to take photographs of the hotels. These images were subsequently edited by Ms Lee, before they were delivered to the hotels and one of the defendants - which was incorporated in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) but has its principal place of business in Singapore.

Some time in 2012, Ms Lee discovered that some of the photographs in the materials had appeared on the websites of several online travel agencies.

She later found in 2013 that the photographs were also used in 12 issues of GHM's magazine, which were available for download on its website.

These magazine issues could also be found on other websites owned or operated by GHM companies, and copies were distributed to hotels managed by the BVI company and their guests.

The Wave Studio then sued various companies - including the BVI firm - for copyright infringement in the US.

The US court later dismissed its claims against the BVI company, ruling in 2017 that Singapore would be the appropriate forum to determine the copyright owner of the photographs.

Ms Lee, The Wave Studio and one of her other companies then started legal proceedings against the BVI firm and its subsidiary here in 2018. They are represented by law firms David Llewelyn & Co and Drew & Napier, with Mr Mahesh Rai as lead counsel.

The defendants are represented by a team from K&L Gates Straits Law, led by Mr Narayanan Sreenivasan, SC.

In her judgment, Justice Chionh held that Ms Lee's three companies engaged by GHM originally owned the copyright to the photographs that each of them was involved in producing.

To date, two of the companies had already dissolved but had assigned to The Wave Studio the copyright they own. The remaining company did the same in 2011.

Among other things, the judge noted that the three companies would issue documents containing the key terms and conditions of the services provided whenever they were engaged by GHM.

The documents typically contained a clause stating that Ms Lee's companies retained the copyright to "all designs, soft copies, material, photographs and projects undertaken", which she held was accepted by the hotels.

The clause would also mean that the companies never intended to assign the copyright ownership of the photographs to the hotels.

Justice Chionh also rejected the claim by one of the defendants - the subsidiary of the BVI company - that it had nothing to do with the publishing of the magazine or with the content of the GHM websites.

She said there was evidence that showed it did, such as its name appearing as "producer" in the first six issues of the GHM magazine.

The defendants have appealed against her decision.

A company which wins a lawsuit for copyright infringement can get various remedies, such as a court order to stop the offending firm from continuing its infringing acts or damages.

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