Concept Math Education Centre Pte Ltd v Aw Bixi, Charlotte

JudgeVince Gui
Judgment Date28 August 2023
Neutral Citation[2023] SGDC 194
CourtDistrict Court (Singapore)
Docket NumberDistrict Court Suit No. 218 of 2022, District Court Summons No. 1478 of 2022
Hearing Date01 December 2022,13 October 2022,06 October 2022,11 August 2022
Citation[2023] SGDC 194
Plaintiff CounselMarcus Hoh (Amica Law LLC)
Defendant CounselRyan Su (OC Queen Street LLC)
Subject MatterIntellectual Property,Copyright,Whether copyright subsists in tuition worksheets,Infringement,Injunction,Principles governing the grant of permanent injunction
Published date31 August 2023
District Judge Vince Gui: Introduction

The Plaintiff ran a highly acclaimed primary school mathematics tuition business. It made its first million-dollar revenue within just two years of its launch in 2013. Two years later in 2015, around 600 students enrolled in its tuition classes. The number swelled to almost 1,000 by 2016. Its successes attracted significant media coverage for the Plaintiff and its founder, Ms Chuah Geok Lin (“Ms Chuah”) both in Singapore and abroad. The media dubbed her a “Super Tutor”.1

The Defendant is the mother of a primary school student enrolled in the Plaintiff’s classes. Like all other students, her daughter received worksheets during the tuition classes for her enrichment. The Defendant however had other ideas. Realising its worth, the Defendant decided to run a side hustle. She made copies and sold them on an online marketplace called Carousell. To avoid detection, she hid behind various pseudonyms.

The Plaintiff eventually caught wind of the antics. Through investigations, it traced the pseudonyms to the Defendant. It issued cease-and-desist letters to the Defendant, demanding, amongst others, that the Defendant pay damages and issue written undertakings. As the Defendant did not meet the Plaintiff’s demands, the Plaintiff commenced this action for legal recourse.

After reviewing the Defendant’s pleadings, the Plaintiff applied for summary judgment. I was of the view that the Plaintiff was justified in seeking summary judgment as the Defendant’s pleadings and affidavit disclosed no reasonable defence to warrant a trial. In trying to dissuade me from granting a permanent injunction, counsel for the Defendant revealed during the hearing that the Defendant was in fact a teacher with the Ministry of Education (“MOE”) and had no intention of repeating the wrongs as she did not want to lose her job. I was not persuaded by this submission. In fact, I was of the view that it had quite the opposite effect of enhancing her culpability, as she had committed the wrongs despite her qualifications which would have acquainted her with the importance of academic integrity. I was also of the view that the infringements were systematic and premeditated. For additional reasons which I will elaborate later, I ordered a permanent injunction against her.

At the end of the hearing, I remarked that I would likely issue written grounds for my decision. This was principally because the parties’ submissions engaged an interesting issue of when a permanent injunction ought to be granted for copyright infringement. While Singapore courts frequently granted permanent injunctions against copyright infringement, the reasons for why and when such injunctions were granted have not been explored in our case law. Counsel for both parties turned to foreign authorities for guidance. I found the submissions and authorities on the foreign authorities to be of great assistance. In this written grounds, I hope to build on them and contribute to the jurisprudential discourse in this domain.

I begin with the background facts.

Background facts

The Plaintiff is the brainchild of Ms Chuah. Prior to starting the business, Ms Chuah had an accomplished teaching career with the MOE. In her 10-year tenure, she won various awards for her teaching excellence, including the Outstanding Contribution Award in 2001, 2004 and 2006.2 But her teaching endeavours took a toll on her personal time, and in 2009, she decided to quit her job to spend more time with her three children. Shortly thereafter came the birth of the idea to start of her own tuition business.

She started giving tuition at home while her children were at school. She started with five students, earning her about $1,000 a month. Her home tuition business grew rapidly. By the end of the first year, she had over 50 students, earning her up to $15,000 a month.3

In 2011, Ms Chuah decided to open a tuition centre teaching primary school mathematics. Her business grew by leaps and bounds in the subsequent years. In 2015, the Plaintiff had 600 students. It ran 70 classes with six to seven students in each class. The student enrolment grew to 1,000 in 2016.4 Her tuition centre became popular through word of mouth. In a media interview, she mentioned that the waiting period for Primary 1 students was about a year. She credited the tuition centre’s success not to her business acumen but her passion for teaching. It was that passion that propelled the business to success.5

At the heart of that passion was the Ms Chuah’s endeavour to curate a solid teaching pedagogy. The teaching pedagogy emphasised on developing students’ understanding of mathematical concepts and equipping them with the means to solve mathematical problems confidently and accurately. In keeping with that pedagogy, Ms Chuah decided to independently design and curate lesson worksheets and teaching materials. According to her, the Plaintiff does not follow the sequence of topics prescribed in the MOE syllabus. To her mind, the focus on concepts was the Plaintiff’s unique selling proposition.6

The Plaintiff’s worksheets

As the Head of Curriculum of the Plaintiff, Ms Chuah first curated the lesson worksheets in 2010. Building on her earlier works, the Plaintiff’s curriculum team curated the worksheets that formed the subject matter of the present action between 1 September 2020 to 1 June 2021. The team comprised of Ms Chuah and five other individuals.7

In April 2021, it came to the Plaintiff’s attention that someone was selling the Plaintiff’s worksheets on Carousell. The items listed for sale comprises 30 worksheets distributed to the Plaintiff’s Primary 2 students over the course of 30 lessons in three school terms in 2021 (the “Worksheets”).8

The Worksheets incorporated most, if not all, of the following structure:9 Concept Notes: An overview of the concepts covered in the worksheet followed by short-answer questions. Guided Problem Sums: Problem sums requiring the application of the relevant concepts. Guidelines are given on how to complete them. These are to be completed under the guidance of the Plaintiff’s teaching staff. Higher-order Thinking Problem Sums: These problem sums are generally of higher level of difficulty. DIY Problem Sums: These problem sums are to be completed by the student on their own time. Optional Activity: An optional mathematics activity relevant to the concepts covered in the worksheet.

The Worksheets also sought to impart to the students a five-step framework that was created by Ms Chuah in 2017, which teaches students to (1) simplify the question; (2) use models to visualise the question; (3) analyse the question and identify the applicable concepts; (4) resolve the question using equations; and (5) test their answers.10

In addition, the Worksheets featured problem-solving models, methodologies and frameworks which Ms Chuah independently created for specific concepts. Notable examples include: (1) the “GET” framework which teaches students how to use concepts like “grouping” and “sharing and giving” to solve questions regarding multiplication and division; (2) the “Naughty Ones” model which teaches students how to use concepts like the “comparison” concept to solve questions across topics like subtraction and division; and (3) the “Brick Layer” model, which teaches students how to use “simultaneous” concept to solve questions regarding the topic of mass.11

While the Plaintiff took credit for the structure and framework of the Worksheets, it did not take credit for the individual questions and activities found therein. The Plaintiff selected and adapted these questions and activities from various public sources such as past-year Singapore school examination papers, websites and books.12

Having said that, the Plaintiff took credit for the selection and arrangement of these questions and activities. According to the Plaintiff, this process involved various considerations such as (1) the relevancy to the concepts covered in the Worksheets; and (2) the degree of difficulty and suitability. This undertook significant time, effort and analysis on the part of its curriculum team. To this end, the Plaintiff highlighted that the final structure and contents of the Worksheets did not replicate any of the original sources from which the questions and activities were adapted.

Beyond the selection and arrangement of the questions and activities, the Plaintiff intentionally placed various teaching prompts nearby, to guide students on completing them. Ms Chuah was responsible for the design, layout and contents of these teaching prompts.13

Ms Chuah explained that the Plaintiff was the rightful copyright owner of the Worksheets. In this regard, each member of its curriculum team had entered into contracts with the Plaintiff undertaking to vest in the Plaintiff copyright to authorial works generated during their employment.

I have spent some time narrating the contents of the Worksheets because the Defendant argued that the Worksheets were not original enough to attract copyright protection. I will come back to this point later.

Unauthorised sale

As mentioned above, the Plaintiff discovered that someone was selling the Plaintiff’s Worksheets on Carousell in or around April 2021. The Worksheets were listed for sale under an account with the username “Charsuu” (the “Carousell Account”).

The Plaintiff suspected that the Carousell Account belonged to a student who was enrolled in the Plaintiff’s classes at the material time. This was because the worksheets listed for sale were Worksheets that had been distributed to its students in or around 30 December 2020 and 29 March 2021.14

The Plaintiff decided to find out the identity of this student. Between 5 May 2021 and 10 May 2021, the Plaintiff engaged someone to contact the Carousell Account via the Carousell messaging platform, indicating interest to purchase...

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