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Lets Read the Draft Copyright Bill at Midnight!

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While writing my legal decision scraper, I faced troubling questions. There is a wealth of legal material available online in Singapore, even though it might be flawed – buried somewhere in the official website’s sitemap, hampered by terms of use (or lack thereof), and inconvenient formats like PDF.

A useful project can do at least three things:

  • Collect these materials and store them in a database
  • Convert them into machine-readable formats and plausibly do some data science on it
  • Display the results for testing, verification or use

I did not know whether it was legal to do anything with the material in front of me. For crying out loud, I am having these difficulties despite my legal training.

Enter the 2021 Draft Copyright Bill

Following my sleepless nights, I was excited about the changes to the Copyright Act in Singapore. The discussion is not new, and changes are afoot to update it and push Singapore’s business-friendly image in this new digital economy.

I am incredibly excited about the following changes:

  • Facilitating the use of works for text and data mining
  • Increasing the availability of materials on official government registers

I have to admit I am not reading the bill for the first time. I read it during work, and it gave me a headache. It’s ironic because this act is supposed to be in plain English, ostensibly for plain people.

Then again, doing anything during work gives me a headache. Maybe I am going to have better luck at midnight!

“Computation Data Analysis”#

“Facilitating the use of works for text and data mining” is covered in a new Division 8. I reproduce some key parts here.

**Definition: what is computational data analysis**

232.  In this Division, “computational data analysis”, in relation to any work, includes — 

(a) using  a  computer  program  to  identify,  extract  and  analyse information or data from the work; and 

(b) using the work as an example of a type of information or data to improve the functioning of a computer program in relation to that type of information or data. 


An example of computational data analysis under paragraph (b) is the use of images to train a computer program to recognise images.

**Making reproductions or copies for computational data analysis**

233.—(1)  If the conditions in subsection  (2)  are met, it is a  permitted use for a person (X) to — (a)  make a reproduction of — (i)  any work; or (ii)  a recording of a protected performance; or (b)  communicate the reproduction to the public. 

(2)  The conditions are … (c) X does not supply (whether by communication or otherwise) the reproduction to any person other than for the purpose of — (i) verifying the results of the computational data analysis carried out by X; or (ii) collaborative research and study relating to the purpose of the computational data analysis carried out by X; (d) X had lawful access to the work (including a reproduction of the work)  or recording from which the reproduction was made (called in this section the original); and (e)  one of the following conditions is satisfied: (i) the original is not an infringing copy; … (iii)  the original is an infringing copy but — (A) the use of infringing copies is necessary for the purpose for  which X is carrying  out computational data analysis; and (B) X does not use the reproduction to carry out computational data analysis for any other purpose.


X does not have lawful access to the original if X accessed the original by circumventing paywalls or in breach of the terms of use of a database. 

If X is carrying out computational data analysis for the purpose of research and study into copyright infringement, the use of reproductions that are infringing copies could be necessary for that purpose.

My Grammarly plugin went nuts on this one. Nope, my headache is still coming back.

My initial thoughts on the changes suggest that it won’t resolve my sleepless nights:

  1. Materials used for data analytics are still guarded by lawful access (s. 233(1)(d)). If the rights owner is not clear in the terms of its use whether access is permitted, does it mean I can ignore it?
  2. Let’s pretend I don’t know whether this is infringing, and I believe it is necessary for my work. What does “necessary” mean? The illustration suggests a direct nexus between the use of infringing materials and purpose (“I need to study copyright infringement; therefore, I need to study infringing materials”). But “necessary” can mean other things. For example, if I can obtain the data from only one source, is it “necessary” for me to use infringing copies? If the only interpretation is that a direct nexus is needed, the only reason you can use infringing copies is to study copyright infringement.
  3. If I would like to rely on s. 233(1)(e)(ii), how much knowledge do I need before “X does not know”. If the content owner does not state on its website, do I have to ask? If the content owner states on its terms that I have to get permission, do I know it is infringing?
  4. If I ask the world at large to verify my open-source computational data work (for, e.g. a search engine), am I allowed to reproduce the source?

“Public Information” from the government#

I did not notice this the first time, because I am legally trained and “register” means something very particular in my mind. However, for this “permitted use”, a public register refers to a collection that the Government permits to provide copies. A list of decisions fits that description right?

My initial thoughts haven’t been rosy as well: If a government makes materials available on their website, is it permitted by law to do so? (s. 265(a)(ii))

**Definition: what is a public register**

265.  In this Division, “public register” — (a) subject to paragraphs (b)  and  (c),  means any collection (however named)  of documents or materials to which the following criteria apply: (i) the collection is maintained by the  Government or a  public body under any written law; (ii) the Government or public body (as the case may be) is required or permitted by law — 15(A) to open the collection for inspection by the public or a segment of the public, whether for a fee or not; or (B) to provide copies of the documents or materials to a  member of the public or a  segment of the public, whether for a fee or not; (b) includes any prescribed collection of documents or materials; and (c)  excludes a public collection and any prescribed collection of documents or materials.

As my project suggests, there is a wealth of material produced by the Government that is very interesting. For example, the Government creates an informative infographic. Is the Government “permitted” by law to do so? To a layman, the answer should be yes – the Government can do whatever it wants with what it does, and my communication upholds the purpose of doing the infographic. As a lawyer reading the words “permitted by law”, I am not so sure. “Permitted by law” in my legal mind requires the “permission” to be in a written law.

However, if my goal is to encourage open access to legal materials, it would appear that this is permitted – the act is done to facilitate the provision of copies from the register (s. 266(d)(i)).


I might be wrong because copyright law is not my forte (oh how I wish it were now!). There might be special meanings attached to terms which could have resolved my doubts. However, using “Plain English” should have avoided that. On that score, I think my worries and doubts will continue.


To get more clarity on my questions, I decided to go through the consultation documents. I don’t think that the government had my use case in mind when they drafted the amendments.

I guess a bit of motivated reasoning goes a long way.

Even so, I find it odd that they had written the laws in such an open manner when they appeared to have a much narrower use in mind. I guess it’s easier to break things than to figure out whether you’re doing the right thing.

Cover Image by TheOtherKev&lt from Pixabay