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December 14, 2020

Copyright In Real Life Events?

Author: Janaki Arun

Introduction

A three- judge bench of the Supreme Court [S.A. Bobde, A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian, JJ.] dismissed a special leave petition in M/S Super Cassettes Industries Private Limited (T-Series) v. Nandi Chinni Kumar & Ors. [Petition(s) for Special Leave to Appeal (C) No(s).12886-12887/2020] challenging the stay on telecast/streaming of the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Jhund, in India and abroad on 18th November, 2020.

The question of law as to whether copyright can exist is real life events, which arose in this case is one of importance and interest to the field of copyright law in India. This article aims to understand the concept of copyright in real life events through the instant case.

Factual Background:

The Respondent in the instant suit, is a film maker, who, after coming across an interview of Mr. Akhilesh Prakash Paul, a soccer player, on popular TV show, Satyameva Jayathe, hosted by Aamir Khan became interested in Mr. Paul’s life story. Therefore, he approached Mr. Paul and entered into multiple agreements to make a biopic/feature film based on his life story. The Respondent, thereafter, prepared a script with the title ‘Slum Soccer’ by improvising and modifying Mr. Paul’s life story, and registered it with the Telangana Cinema Writers’ Association in July, 2018.

The Respondent came across news that a Hindi film ‘Jhund’ starring Mr. Amitabh Bachchan was in the production/shooting stage, and that Mr. Bachhchan would play the role of Mr. Vijay Barse (Mr. Paul’s coach/mentor), and that the said film would be based on the origins of ‘Slum Soccer’ and Mr. Barse’s life story.

The Respondent issued a legal notice in October, 2019 to the Appellants demanding, inter alia, that they cease and desist from indulging in any infringement of copyright vested in favour of the Respondent in respect of the true-life story events of Mr. Paul, and that they cease and desist from shooting, producing, doing post-production work, marketing and also releasing the said film.

Thereafter, in January 2020, the Respondent came across a teaser of the film Jhund on YouTube in January, 2020 in which he found resemblance with the true life story events of Mr. Paul. He, therefore, filed a suit before the District Court seeking, inter alia, temporary and permanent injunctions against the Appellants from exhibiting, broadcasting and/streaming the film, ‘Jhund’ in India or abroad.

Arguments before the District Judge:

The Respondent argued that he owns the “concept, thought, characterization, image, identity and expression” apart from copyright in respect of true life story events of Mr. Paul and that the Appellants’ making of the said film with a character similar to Mr. Paul constitutes infringement of the copyright of the Respondent’s work. The Appellants contended, inter alia, that (i) no case had been made out by the Respondent, (ii) that they are entitled to use the real life events of Mr. Barse as they had acquired requisite rights from him; (iii) they did not review the script registered by the Respondent; and (iv) that there is no question of copyright infringement.

Decision of the district court:

The district court, vide its order dated September 17, 2020, while allowing the interim application for temporary injunction against the Appellants, held that “the subject matter being in public domain or not, is the controversial aspect in the case and that the observations relating to the matter being in public domain would apply in regard to the right of privacy, but they cannot be applied in relation to copyright infringement; that even according to the defendants their movie story was not available in public domain; and even incidental reference of character of 1st defendant at the present stage would be unlawful copying of the plaintiff’s original.”

The Defendants/Appellants aggrieved by the decision of the district court, approached the High Court of Telangana.

Jurisprudence:

In addressing the question regarding whether copyright vests in real life events or not, the Court looked in to the landmark decision of the Supreme Court in  R.G. Anand Vs. Delux Films [AIR 1978 SC 1613], wherein the Supreme Court [Raja Jaswant  Singh, R.S. Pathak and S. Murtaza Fazal Ali, JJ.] had held that “there can be no copyright in an idea, subject matter, themes, plots or historical or legendary facts and violation of the copyright in such cases is confined to the form, manner and arrangement and expression of the idea by the author of the copyright work.” [Emphasis supplied]

The concept of copyright protection is deeply rooted in the idea-expression dichotomy which lays down that it is the expression of an idea not the idea itself that ought to granted protection. This doctrine was evolved to avoid monopolization and limitations on creativity.

In this regard, the Court observed that while there is a theoretical ‘possibility’ of making a movie without reference to Mr. Paul, the ‘probability’ of the Appellants doing so is low because the marketability of a movie about a celebrity sportsperson is far higher than the that of a movie about his coach without the celebrity pupil/sportsperson, viz. Mr. Paul in this case.

The Court, thereafter, looked into the jurisprudence on the question of publicity rights of a celebrity.

In DM Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. v. Baby Gift House [CS(OS) 893/2002], the Delhi Court [S. Ravindra Bhat, J.] held that “the right of publicity can, in a jurisprudential sense, be located with the individual’s right and autonomy to permit or not permit the commercial exploitation of his likeness or some attributes of his personality”.

In Titan Industries Limited v. Ram Kumar Jewellers [2012 (50) PTC 486 (Del)], the Delhi High Court [Manmohan Singh, J.], while quoting the decision in the DM Entertainment case held that “infringement of right of publicity requires no proof of falsity, confusion, or deception, especially when the celebrity is identifiable”.

Decision of the High Court:

The High Court dismissed the Defendants/Appellants challenge of the district court’s order dated September 17, 2020 and upheld the decision of the district court. The High Court also emphasized that “…findings and observations…in this order are only intended for the disposal of these appeals and are not intended to be final expression of opinion on the respective contentions of the parties and the trial court should decide the suit uninfluenced by them.”

The Court observed that, in the instant case, Mr. Akhilesh Paul would, prima facie, fall in the category of celebrity, and when he entered into a Life Story Rights Agreements with the Respondent after receiving consideration from the Respondent, he also sold the exclusive rights for a motion picture based on his true-life story events.Therefore, the Respondent is entitled to enforce the same as his assignee.

Conclusion:

It is interesting to note that the rights to the real-life events of a person are rooted not only in copyright law, but also in personality rights and publicity rights. Time and again, there have been multiple debates on whether personality/publicity rights arise out of the constitutional rights or whether commercial contracts override such rights.

While the instant case has somewhat clarified the position on the concept of copyright in real-life events, it is yet to be seen how the trial court will adjudicate upon the matter.

Disclaimer: Views, opinions, interpretations are solely those of the author, not of the firm (ALG India Law Offices LLP) nor reflective thereof. Author submissions are not checked for plagiarism or any other aspect before being posted.

Copyright: ALG India Law Offices LLP.

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