Movie business or Showbiz, as it is colloquially called, has often been the aspiration of the middle-class population. The larger than life hero, the beautiful heroine, the cunning villain all come together to create a big-screen big ticket experience that, to this day, remains magic for a large number of the Indian population.
However, what usually translates to the screen barely showcases and recognizes the hardwork and toil of various technicians, designers, associates who spend day and night creating this so called ‘Movie Magic’. However, many cinephiles or film intellectuals will argue that a movie is conceived at the stage of its script. The script is, in very basic terms, a copy of the narrative or the story which is then translated to camera and then released in theatres.
It is this script that often becomes a bone of contention and a reason for dispute between various parties. Since the script contains a story and/or a narrative, it is a literary work which is capable of copyright protection in India. However, the legal principle as regards to literary works is well-established. The idea-expression dichotomy clearly states 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 copyrighted work.”
Despite the above-noted well-established principle, there have been numerous cases that have come in front of various courts across the country. However, one common theme that has been noticed in all of these cases is that the plaintiffs usually move court seeking a stay on the release of the film/show, as the case may be, on the ground of copyright infringement, very close to the actual release date.
This practice was severely criticised by Justice G.S. Patel in Dashrath B Rathod & Ors.v. Fox Star Studios India Pvt. Ltd. & Anr. where the plaintiff claimed that the Hindi motion picture ‘Phillauri’ was a substantial reproduction of his own copyrighted work. The court took cognizance of the fact that the trailer of the movie released almost six (6) weeks ago and that the plaintiff had sent a legal notice in February, 2017 which was replied to at the start of March 2017 itself. However, the plaintiff waited another twenty (20) days before instituting the suit with the movie’s release just a couple of days away. Justice Patel took a very harsh view of the situation and stated that parties cannot come with their claims at the eleventh hour and expect the court to drop all other work to hear such matters. However, he was also quick to clarify that an exception can be made when the plaintiff did not have any prior knowledge of the defendant. The court even went on to call such cases an ‘unconscionable indulgence’.
Similarly, in Vinay Vats v. Fox Star Studios India Pvt. Ltd. & Anr., the Delhi High Court reiterated the idea-expression dichotomy and the above-noted Bombay High Court judgment while refusing to stay the release of the movie ‘Lootcase’. Pertinently, the court stated that the trailer of the movie was released on July 16, 2020 and the promos have been in public doman since June 2019 yet the defendant waited till the eve of the release of the film to file the suit.
More recently, the same question came up before the Bombay High Court where a stay was sought on the release of the Hindi film ‘Jersey’ which is an official remake of a Telugu film by the same name. The plaintiff claimed that the movie is in violation of his rights owing to a script titled ‘The Wall’ which is registered under his name. The plaintiff claimed that he had issued a cease and desist notice in January 2022. The plaintiff also went on to apprise the court of the response received from the defendants.
On the other hand, the defendants argued that it had issued a public notice in August 2019 informing the public of the Hindi remake and inviting objections. The defendants also stated that the Telugu film has already had a theatrical release and OTT runs in India. Lastly, the defendant claimed that the Hindi remake has been in the news for a while now and it is inconceivable that the plaintiff only came to know of the remake in December, 2021, as alleged.
Taking into account the above facts, the court held that in light of the delay and laches, it would not go into the claimed similarities between the scripts, and refused to grant a stay on the release.
From the above illustrative judgments, it is apparent that courts have stopped looking favourably at suits filed at the last minute to stay the release of a film/show, barring exceptional circumstances. The principle behind them appears to be simple that the court cannot assist a person who has wilfully slept on its rights and allowed the other party to incur expenses and labour. Such a party can then not be allowed to approach the court at the eleventh hour and claim relief as a matter of right.
The above-noted precedent also aims to strike a balance between the ‘alleged’ rights of the holder as well as the party creating the content so that the latter does not reach a stage where it has incurred huge expenses and is subsequently forced to stay the release or delay it and thus incur additional losses.
Clearly, the showbiz has more to it than meets the eye!