Singapore's biggest property listings portal PropertyGuru has sued its rival 99.co over alleged copyright infringement, accusing the latter of reproducing content from its website without permission.
Yesterday marked the start of the six-day trial, which is being watched for its implications on who owns the copyright of content uploaded onto online platforms.
At issue in the ongoing case is the use of a third-party digital app called Xpressor, which lets property agents post listings across multiple portals - resulting in several listings on 99.co bearing PropertyGuru's watermark.
PropertyGuru, which was founded here in 2007 by Finn Jani Rautiainen and Briton Steve Melhuish, has said it has the business of half the 28,000 licensed agents in Singapore.
99.co, a relative newcomer, was set up in 2014 by entrepreneur Darius Cheung and counts Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin among its backers.
PropertyGuru filed three claims against 99.co.
It alleges that 99.co had breached a previous settlement agreement made in September 2015. 99.co "substantially reproduced and continues to reproduce" content from its website, said PropertyGuru.
Implications beyond property sector
Intellectual property lawyers are watching the court case involving PropertyGuru and 99.co closely.
The case raises questions about who owns the copyright on images of properties taken by housing agents, and could have implications beyond the property industry.
PropertyGuru is alleging that 99.co infringed its copyright by posting content from its website on the latter's, among other things.
But 99.co has countered that property agents were exercising their rights to their own content.
Robinson LLC lawyer Cyril Chua said for a site, or any other party, to claim copyright on the content, there must have been sufficient skill, effort, labour and judgment to change it.
"If I draw a version of the Mona Lisa with different hair, I own the copyright to that parody. The question is whether resizing it and signing my name can warrant me calling it a new piece of art," he said.
The general rule has been that whoever created the work owns the copyright in it unless he signs a written agreement and transfers ownership.
A quick check showed that popular sites like Facebook and Pinterest do not own the copyright on images hosted on their sites. Others, such as sales listing site Carousell, state that users infringe copyright if they post images of items taken by other users or off their original websites.
Amica Law's Jason Chan said there could be other issues such as ownership of copyright to a listing and their images when agents co-broke a deal.
It is also accusing 99.co of infringing its copyright by reproducing photos bearing the PropertyGuru watermark on 99.co's website.
The final claim is that 99.co had caused property agents to breach PropertyGuru's rules about content on its website by encouraging them to sign up with Xpressor to copy their listings from PropertyGuru onto 99.co's website.
According to PropertyGuru's Acceptable Use Policy, agents cannot reproduce, display or provide access to its website on another site.
99.co has denied the claims, and has filed a counterclaim against PropertyGuru for "groundless threats" of copyright infringement.
It argues that agents were "exercising their own copyright" in using Xpressor to post listings across multiple websites.
It is also saying that it has not reproduced PropertyGuru's photos; rather, agents themselves have done so by using Xpressor.
Yesterday, Mr Rautiainen, PropertyGuru's managing director, was cross-examined by 99.co's lawyer Koh Chia Ling.
Mr Koh sought to establish that the act of resizing or putting a watermark on an agent's photo does not give PropertyGuru copyright over the new image.
But Mr Rautiainen disagreed, citing a "high-level technical process" that allows agents' original photos to be adjusted, pixelated and resized, then have a watermark imprinted on them.
He also said that the only available alternative site for Xpressor to cross-post listings to was 99.co.
According to Xpressor's Facebook page, it allows cross-post listings across nine property portals, including PropertyGuru and 99.co.
But when questioned by Mr Koh, Mr Rautiainen said there was never any infringement of copyright by Xpressor's parent company, Media Publishing Group.
The trial continues today.