Law to give photographers rights to their work by default

Newlyweds who engage a photographer to take photos on their wedding day now own the rights to the photos by default. But a change to the Copyright Act will grant the rights to the photographer instead.

The couple would then have to negotiate with the photographer if they want the rights to be transferred to them.

The change is expected to kick in around November, after amendments to the Act were passed in Parliament yesterday. It follows from a review of the law done by the Government that included public consultations since 2016.

Some MPs who spoke on the changes were worried that members of the public would be caught by surprise over the switch in rights ownership for wedding photos and videos as well as other images they hired photographers to shoot, such as for family functions.

The change is part of a move that will allow creators of photographs, portraits, engravings, sound recordings and films to be the default first owners of the copyright, even if they are commissioned to make them.

Currently, the commissioning party or employer has default ownership. In the case of wedding photos, this would be the couple getting married.

The change will put the creators in the same position as the originators of other commissioned works - such as songs, computer graphics and books - who have the copyright ownership from the get-go.

But a creator's copyright ownership can be waived in contracts during negotiations.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) asked if it was possible for a consumer to make an oral agreement with a photographer so he does not accidentally lose the rights to "his personal photos or video recording just because he forgot to sign a written contract".

"I believe many individuals may not be comfortable that the photographer... is entitled to keep these photos in his portfolio," he said.


    • When creative works are used in public, including online, the creator or performer must be identified and credited. This includes viral dance videos and photos of paintings in an art gallery.

    • Creators of photographs, portraits, engravings, sound recordings and films will be the default first owners of the copyright, even if they are commissioned to make them. But the ownership can be waived during negotiations.

    • Selling set-top boxes that offer access to pirated online streams of movies and shows will be banned. Errant retailers can be sued by copyright owners too, including those that offer pirated content or access to such content through software applications.

He also proposed a template agreement that people can use to help them negotiate and retain the rights to their photos or videos.

Nominated MP Raj Joshua Thomas said consumers may get a rude surprise upon realising they may have to pay more to have photo rights transferred to them.

Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong said the Government would look into public education efforts so that various stakeholders, including the public, understand the new rights.

On the suggestion for oral agreements, he said there would be difficulties presenting them as evidence when there is a dispute.

"The intention here is not to add on a further overlay of disputes," said Mr Tong, who is also Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, adding that consumers are typically more vulnerable.

"If oral agreements are allowed, it's often going to be one man's word against the other."

But he said the Government will consider Mr Lim's suggestion to have a template for written agreements of copyright ownership.

Several MPs also voiced concern that despite creators having default ownership to the rights of their works, they still lack bargaining power during negotiations with buyers of services.

But Mr Tong said it would not be possible to legislate negotiating power, explaining that the changes to the law would not be able to take into account "the relative considerations in every commercial negotiation".

Instead, he suggested that creators, who could be freelancers or small business owners, consider coming together to form industry associations to develop industry best practices to represent them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2021, with the headline 'Law to give photographers rights to their work by default'. Subscribe