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Model in copyright tussle with artist over use of her image

Model in copyright tussle with artist over use of her image

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 28 Mar 2021
Author: Amanda Chai

Image or personality rights - loosely defined as the rights an individual holds in their own persona including their name and likeness - are not recognised under Singapore law.

A local model has found herself embroiled in a copyright dispute with an artist who used her image without consent.

The case of model Duan Mei Yue, 22, and artist Allison M. Low, 32, has been circulating on social media - implicating numerous parties in the local creative scene - ever since Ms Low was found to have created and sold artworks in Ms Duan's likeness.

In January, Ms Duan found a sculpture in her likeness in clothing retailer Love, Bonito's Funan store. The installation was part of an art-meets-retail programme called Creative Unions for Singapore Art Week, curated by creative agency Neighborhood.

It bore a striking similarity to an image of her taken by local photographer Li Wanjie in December 2017. The full-time model with Mannequin Studio, confronted Ms Low on Jan 23 via Instagram direct messages. "She was definitely apologetic and acknowledged that it was a 'colossal blunder'," Ms Duan told The Sunday Times.

Ms Low had previously credited both Mr Li and Ms Duan on Instagram when she posted on Jan 8 last year a sketch that she did, which was inspired by the same image.

Ms Duan added: "I set down my terms for an amicable settlement: a public apology; the installations to be taken down immediately; and lastly, compensation based on a percentage of all profits she made with my likeness."

But she said Ms Low did not reply for the next one month and the installations remained up for the duration of Creative Unions, during which tote bags and pendants with variations of the image were given away.

On Feb 28, the model was informed by a follower that an image Ms Low created in her likeness was on the cover of a book sold at Kinokuniya - a new edition of local author Amanda Lee Koe's prize-winning short-story collection, Ministry Of Moral Panic.

On further investigation, Ms Duan discovered another art piece in her likeness that Ms Low had sold online via an art gallery for €1,875 (S$2,984), without her knowledge or consent.

"(Since then), she has not contacted me nor acknowledged the situation."

At a loss, Ms Duan posted about the matter on Instagram on March 15. It went viral.

Ms Duan added: "I feel violated, exhausted and I just wish I was properly protected by the law about this. I wish the artist had owned up to it herself like I had asked her to, in the terms I gave her. The hate I have been receiving from her friends is incredibly hurtful."

THE ARTIST'S SIDE

It has been a distressing time for all parties involved.

In response to queries from The Sunday Times, Ms Low said she has been receiving "relentless shaming and threats" that have been "mentally debilitating".

"I have always believed in freedom of artistic expression, and I never thought that being inspired by something or someone could ever go awry," she said, adding that she had been engaged by Love, Bonito in November last year.

"The artworks I made were about the strength and grace in women and it was never my intention for art to ever bring harm to anyone."

Ms Low confirmed that Ms Duan had contacted her on Jan 23, and she "agreed to speak with her modelling agent, who had requested an unspecified sum".

On Jan 26, she received "a list of additional demands from Mei Yue" - including "full compensation for all income earned".

"The extent of the demands caught me off guard as this was contrary to what was discussed," said Ms Low.

She sought legal advice and was advised that "the demands were made without any legal basis".

In March, she was informed that Ms Duan "would be taking this to social media" without naming her. She was shocked when the post on March 15 "published (her) personal information".

"It is unfortunate that this has brought about so much negativity, especially through art which came from a place of positivity," said Ms Low, who is "open to engaging with Mei Yue when the time is right".

Acknowledging the incident, Love, Bonito released a statement on Instagram Stories, saying: "We were not informed that the commissioned pieces were inspired by Mei Yue's likeness. We empathise truly with her frustrations."

Author Lee Koe wrote on Instagram Stories that she has informed her publishers not to use the cover for future print runs.

"Even though I had no say in this, let me state my position: Artists should ask for permission before they use someone's likeness as a reference in a work, whether legally or morally," she said.

LOCAL LAWS IN QUESTION

Image or personality rights - loosely defined as the rights an individual holds in his or her own persona including name and likeness - are not recognised under Singapore law.

"It is my likeness and face that was profited off without my consent. Personality rights protection is not strong in Singapore... However, my image does have commercial value - based on how I am represented by a modelling agency and have done magazine shoots and commercials," said Ms Duan, who has walked for the likes of Dior and Paris Fashion Week.

Unlike in other countries where personality rights are recognised as an independent cause of action, such cases are not straightforward in Singapore, according to dispute resolution lawyer Leow Jiamin of WongPartnership LLP.

A "further area of complication" lies in who owns the copyright to the photo. In Singapore, only the owner or exclusive licensee of the copyright can take legal action for infringement.

And ownership, said Ms Leow, depends on factors such as "the purpose for which the photograph was taken, whether it was taken in accordance to a contract and the terms of that contract".

"The subject of the photograph is often not the owner of the copyright."

Mr Li, who has been seeking legal counsel over filing a copyright claim to the original photo, said it has been frustrating "running into dead ends" and being told his case "isn't worth fighting... because of a lack of robust protections".

The legal costs of filing for damages are prohibitive, he said.

"I've been told that I have at best an even chance of winning my copyright claim - it rests upon whether Allison's work can be considered a new and original work. I won't be entitled to compensation if the court deems that she has transformed her source material."

"It's decidedly much worse for Mei. That we don't have personality rights suggests that anyone's likeness can be manipulated and marketed, and you cannot defend (yourself) if you lack the resources for legal recourse," he added.

Ms Duan's case has garnered a swell of support on social media.

Her Instagram post calling attention to the matter has more than 15,000 likes. Local personalities including singer-model Iman Fandi and rapper Fariz Jabba have voiced their support.


Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

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