They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. After all, if you could come up with something original that is better than what your competitors offer, why bother copying?
And in recent days, such a scandal has broken out in Singapore, beginning with a viral TikTok video that was posted on an anonymous account.
For context, two influencers Denise Soong and Brooke Lim started up their own private tuition centres this year — Puzzles and co and Classicle Club respectively — and it was alleged that Soong was copying Lim.
In the video, the creator pointed out several things that he/she felt were suspiciously similar, but is there any truth in the accusation?
The facts of the case
The similarities that were highlighted in the video included the company logos, as well as the ideas within the copywriting that promoted their tuition centres.
Most significantly, however, were the similarities between what Brooke and Denise did with their students, which was to book an entire movie theatre for their students to watch a movie. Brooke had brought her students out to watch Thor in August, while Denise brought her students out to watch Black Adam at the end of October.
It is undisputed that both did the exact same thing, but this could also be a more coincidence.
Where the accusations start to get more iffy is when we consider the point about the brand logos. While the logos are quite distinct at first glance, a graphic designer that Vulcan Post spoke to pointed out that there are indeed important similarities.
“Both the logos have the same structure, and they have similar historical branding with the addition of the years that the companies were founded,” said the designer. “But even then, it’s nothing unusual — many other logos are similar, it’s just how you change it to suit your [branding] and improve on it.”
Denise has also responded to the allegations in a TikTok video of her own, pointing out that the logo that Puzzles and co uses was edited from a template that she found on free design tool Canva.
Denise has also responded to the point that the copywriting feels similar, and admitted that she sees the similarities as well. She explained that she had outsourced the management of communication channels, including for copywriting to an intern, who then used the company phone to sign up for a class at Classicle Club.
The intern later used the information that she had gained from Classicle Club to write the copy for Puzzles and co.
Is there a case to be made for copyright infringement?
As of now, the copywriting allegation seems to be the most significant. After all, Denise admitted that her intern used information that may not have been public knowledge in order to inspire her own copywriting, which Denise then signed off on.
However, plagiarism is an academic offence, not a criminal or civil one. While it may be unethical to copy someone else’s work, it’s not exactly illegal and similarities alone are not enough to argue a case of trademark infringement.
A lawyer that Vulcan Post spoke to pointed out that many works have similarities, be it in style or theme, but these itself do not mean that one was copied from the other.
As for the company logos, unless one of them has already been trademarked, it can be difficult to argue that the other is an infringement of the trademark.
“In cases like this, usually the person who files the patent first is going to win the suit. As for the copywriting, it does not really fall under intellectual property (IP) considerations, but depending on what information was exchanged between Classicle Club and Denise’s intern, there may be a case of breach of confidence.”
The least convincing point, however, remains the accusation that Denise copied Brooke’s idea of booking an entire cinema for her students to watch a movie.
Aside from Denise’s defence that there are only so many things that one can do in Singapore, the idea of treating students to a movie or with food in order to motivate them for their exams has never been exclusive to Brooke. Many tutors do the same thing to some degree in order to encourage their students. As a common motivational tactic, it’s hardly worth considering as a serious accusation.
Evidently, the case is shaky at best. While Classicle Club and Puzzles and co do seem to have a lot in common, at least from a legal standpoint, there seems to be no case that Brooke can make against Denise.
Are we all missing the point?
Regardless of whether or not Brooke’s work was copied, many who have spoken out in favour or against either side seem to be missing the point.
How either Brooke or Denise motivate their students should not be the point of contention. Both are helping students in their own way, and that is a laudable goal for both of them.
At the end of the day, tuition centres keep motivational tactics like movie excursions in their toolkit because they work — they help students in their wellbeing, and encourage them to work harder and learn better.
These tactics are not unique to any tutor, and they should not be. Neither Brooke nor Denise are the first to use it, nor will they be the last.
Copying someone else’s work is not something that should be looked well upon — that much is true. It may be unethical, especially if done on purpose. But accidents do happen, and Denise has already apologised for her lack of due diligence.
Instead of criticising any one side, perhaps we should all take a step back and consider whether it is something worth taking sides on in the first place.
Featured Image Credit: Denise Soong / Brooke Lim