Intellectual property is often the most valuable assets a business owns, but unfortunately among the most insecure when operating in a rapidly developing region such as South-East Asia. Many companies only realise the true value of their intellectual property after it has been infringed – the copying and unauthorized use of a trade mark, patent, or other IP type can result in the loss of revenue, damage to a brand’s reputation, or even the end of a venture in a country. Therefore, the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPR) should be one of the main pillars of any business strategy.
Fortunately, Singapore has one of the most comprehensive and thorough IP frameworks in Asia. It is a member of many international conventions regulating IP and has even become a key centre for the trading of intellectual property rights. However, there are still some key aspects that set it apart from Europe.
Above all other IP types, trade marks are the most problematic for foreign SMEs coming to South-East Asia. Fortunately trade mark law and protection in Singapore is relatively advanced. Registered trade marks enjoy additional statutory protection under the Trade Marks Act, and even in the absence of a registration, an unregistered mark which is used by a business in the course of their trade may still be protected under the ‘law of passing off’.
The ‘law of passing off’ essentially prevents other traders from unfairly riding on the reputation and success that a company has built for their trade mark. Three factors need to be proven before a claim of passing off can succeed: (i) that a business has established a good reputation for their trade mark within Singapore; (ii) that the infringer has made a misrepresentation to the public that his goods or services are in some way associated or connected with the originals; (iii) as a result, the brand’s reputation has been damaged.
This should not suggest that a trade mark does not have to be registered though. Legal remedies available are far more limited for unregistered marks, and furthermore, Singapore operates under a ‘first-to-file’ system. This means that the first person to apply for an IP right in the country will own that right once the application is granted, regardless of who used a trade mark first. So it is well worth applying for the right before entering the market.
Unlike in most South-East Asian countries, in Singapore there is no system of registration of copyright. Works that qualify for copyright protection under the Copyright Act do not need to be registered, because copyright protection is conferred automatically to the author as soon as it is expressed or fixed in a material form (e.g. paper, tape and film) from which it is capable of being reproduced.
Copyright includes the protection of source codes of computer software, but does not protect integrated circuit designs (i.e. combinations of semiconductors). However, these designs are protected separately under the Layout-Designs of Integrated Circuits Act. Again, registration is not offered or necessary, as any resident of Singapore or any other country that is part of the World Trade Organisation is automatically protected.
Know your rights
Singapore is very much a safe point of entry into South-East Asia for European companies in regards to protecting innovations. However, it is still worth being aware of the differences between the standard European system and that of Singapore, as IPR infringement can occur in any jurisdiction no matter how advanced the legal system and business environment.
The ASEAN IPR SME Helpdesk is a European Union co-funded project that provides free, practical, business advice relating to ASEAN IPR to European SMEs. To learn about any aspect of intellectual property rights in Southeast Asia, visit our online portal at www.asean-iprhelpdesk.eu. For free expert advice on ASEAN IPR for your business, e-mail your questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org. You will receive a reply from one of the Helpdesk experts within five working days. The ASEAN IPR SME Helpdesk is jointly implemented by DEVELOPMENT Solutions, European Business Chamber of Commerce Indonesia and European Business Organisations Worldwide Network.