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Who owns the Copyright in the Screenplay of Film? – An analysis of the Nayak Saga

Nayak, an award-winning Bengali language film released in the year 1996, is regarded as one of the finest works of Bharat Ratna winner, Satyajit Ray. This film became the buzz of the IP world, when in a recent judgment, the Hon’ble Delhi High Court ruled on the question of ownership of copyright in the screenplay of the film[1].

The tussle began when HarperCollins Publishers India Private Limited (“Defendant”) published and released a novel titled 'Nayak: The Hero’ in 2018, written by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, based on the screenplay of the film, Nayak.

It was RDB and Co. HUF’s (“Plaintiff”) case that R. D. Bansal, a famous film producer had, in 1956-66, commissioned Satyajit Ray to write the screenplay for and direct the film Nayak. The Plaintiff claimed that the copyright in the film, along with all indirect derivatives and related rights associated with the film vested in it, the successor in title, since Mr. Bansal had produced the film. In exercise of its alleged rights, the Plaintiff sought an injunction over ‘novelisation of the screenplay’ by the Defendant, on the ground of copyright infringement[2].

On the other hand, the Defendant submitted that since Mr. Ray authored the screenplay of the film, the copyright vested in Mr. Ray. Pursuant to his demise, the rights in the screenplay devolved to Mr. Ray’s son, Mr. Sandip Ray, and the Society for Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives (“SPSRA”). The Defendant further submitted that they obtained a licence to novelize the screenplay from Mr. Sandip Ray and SPSRA.

The question before the court, in this case, was whether a person commissioned by the producer of a film to write the screenplay would hold the copyright in the screenplay, or if it would belong to the producer?

Before pondering over this intriguing question, one must bear in mind that under Indian law, the screenplay of a film constitutes an original literary work[3] and is, as such, considered distinct from the film itself[4]. It was, therefore, apparent that the copyright in the film itself vested in the Plaintiff.

The seminal question, therefore, is who owns the copyright in the screenplay? Copyright law in India clearly lays down that an author of a work is the first owner of the copyright therein[5]. The dispute, therefore, could not have been on who the author is, since the work, i.e., the screenplay was undisputedly authored by Mr. Ray. The court, therefore, dug deeper into understanding the nature of the working relationship between Mr. Bansal and Mr. Ray during the making of the film, i.e., whether it constituted a “contract of service” or a “contract for service”.

The Supreme Court[6], recently, observed that the tests to distinguish between “contract of service” and “contract for service” are no longer linear and requires courts to perform a balancing act between multiple tests of control, remuneration, nature of the contract, etc. A contract of service, for example, is where a producer of a film engages a scriptwriter for valuable consideration to write the script, and therefore retains the copyright in the script.

In the Nayak case, however, the court, was of the opinion, that the relationship between Mr. Bansal and Mr. Ray could not qualify as a contract of service[7], since it was a contract between equals, and that at the highest, such a contract would only be a contract for service. This distinction emphasizes that Ray had independent creative control over the screenplay, leading to his ownership of the copyright. Accordingly, the court concluded that the copyright in the screenplay vested in Mr. Ray and subsequently devolved to his rightful heirs.

This judgement has undoubtedly disrupted the earlier understanding of contracts of service/ contracts for hire. It is not only the question of the nature of the contract between the parties but also question of creative control that would have to be delved into in detail in deciding the question of ownership of copyright. In the interim, producers may have to enter into copyright assignment agreements, in addition to their work for hire agreements with their script writers. This landmark judgement serves as a reminder that copyright in underlying works do not go unrecognized and that each contribution to a film is recognized as a separate work worthy of copyright protection.

[1] RDB and Co. HUF v. HarperCollins Publishers India Private Limited, CS (COMM) 246 of 2021, Judgement dt. May 23, 2023 [2] Section 51 of the Copyright Act, 1957 [3] Section 2(h) of the Copyright Act, 1957 [4] Sections 13(1) and 13(4) of the Copyright Act, 1957 [5] Section 17 of the Copyright Act, 1957 [6] Sushilaben Indravadan Gandhi v. New Assurance Co. Ltd., (2021) 7 SCC 151 [7] Section 17(3)(c) of the Copyright Act, 1957

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