Bombay High Court: Copyright Infringement Suit Set on Trial

While most of us killing our boredom by watching movies and TV in these uncertain times, the stakeholders are trying their best to safeguard their intellectual property rights that undeniably stem from such modes of entertainment.

In one such case involving a web series, the copyright infringement of the Plaintiff’s work was successfully proven before the Bombay High Court. Even though the infringement was proved, the suit filed by the Plaintiff was set on trial by the Court. The literary work called ‘Singardaan’, which is a short story authored by the Plaintiff, was adapted by the Defendants in the form of a web-series with the same plot, narrative and characters under the identical title without seeking permission from the Plaintiff. The Court further restrained the Defendants from adapting or using the story for the web series.

The Plaintiff, Shamoil Ahmad Khan is an author of popular novels and collection of short stories and is known for his literary work in Urdu and Hindi languages. One of the short stories authored by him in Urdu is called “Singardaan”. This story was first published in 1993 in a literary magazine called “Zahne-Jadid” at New Delhi, followed by another publication by Mayar Publication, New Delhi in 1996. In order to grab the attention of a more versatile audience, the Plaintiff had translated the story in Hindi which was published in a collection of Hindi short stories under the same name (Singardaan) by Ayan Publications, New Delhi in 1994. Since then, the said work had been republished and translated into different Indian languages including English, Marathi, and Punjabi. In fact, the literary work was also adapted in the form of a play that claimed to have received amazing reviews.

The Defendants produced a short web series consisting of 6 episodes under the identical name and title ‘Singardaan’ which was launched on a mobile application called ‘Ullu’. The same was also made available on YouTube among other video sharing platforms. The pertinent issue herein was that the Defendants had not only copied the Plaintiff’s title, Singardaan, but also the entire plot, narrative and characters of the story, without seeking his prior approval.

The Court was of the opinion that the latter part of the Defendants’ web series was clearly a copy of the Plaintiff’s theme, plot and storyline so much so that the person who reads the Plaintiff’s story and then watched the web series would instantly link the two.

In order to reach the final decision, the Court applied the abstraction process. While unveiling the story, the Court went on to describe the term ‘embellishments’ and also gave a clear definition of the other elements: “theme, plot and storyline” which form the subject matter of copyright protection of a literary work. Even though the copyright infringement of the Plaintiff’s work was proved, the Court was of the view that the Defendants’ work was not only a completed work but the same had also been released on the digital platform more than a year ago. The Court believed that the prejudice suffered by the Plaintiff could be redressed by a decree of damages as the same could not be termed irreparable. Additionally, it also stated that the balance of convenience weighed in favour of the Defendants as work had been published for a sufficiently long period of time and that if the same was now receded, greater harm would be caused to them instead of the Plaintiff.

As such, the Court opined that instead of granting a temporary injunction against the showcasing of the web series it is prudent for everyone if the suit is set for a trial. In the meantime, it directed the Defendants to maintain accounts of the profits earned from the date of the publication of the web series and provide them to the Court as and when demanded during the course of the trial. The Court also restrained the further adaptation or use of the web series in a different format under the name ‘Singardaan’.

As can be ascertained from above, the judiciary is doing its bit of interpreting the outline of copyright protection extended to films, shows, etc., and it seems that the decisions rendered in this domain are bound to be subjective depending upon the works in question.

Article by Manisha Singh and Mahima Madan

1st published in Lexology.