Legal Battle Unravelled: The Story Behind ‘Dear Jassi’

Legal Battle Unravelled: The Story Behind ‘Dear Jassi’In the recent legal clash between T-Series and Dreamline Reality Movies, Mohali [FOA No: 6386 of 2023], an appeal was filed by T-series challenging the order dated November 23, 2023, passed by the Additional District Judge, Ludhiana, restraining them from producing, telecasting, selling, or releasing the movie ‘Dear Jassi’ till the final decision. The High Court of Punjab and Haryana at Chandigarh set aside the impugned order, vacating the stay on the release of the said film since Dreamline Reality Movies could not prove a prima facie case in their favour.

Background of the Case

T-series intended to produce a film, “Dear Jassi,” about the life story of Jaswinder Kaur Sidhu @ Jassi. For that purpose, T-series purchased the book’s rights from a Canadian writer, Mr. Fabian Dawson (writer), for an authorisation fee of about 5000C$. At the time when T-series intended to release the movie “Dear Jassi”, Plaintiff no. 1 claimed to have purchased the rights to produce the film from Respondent no. 5 Sukhwinder Singh @ Mithu, the husband of Jaswinder Kaur, filed a suit for injunction against appellants from exhibiting the film.

The respondents claimed that Dreamline Reality Movies entered into an agreement with Jaswinder Kaur’s husband before the appellants produced the film. Since the husband’s story was also involved in the film, T-Series could not make a film without his permission. Dreamline Reality Movies claimed to have a copyright over the story of Jaswinder’s husband. While the suit was still pending, an application for an interim injunction restraining T-Series from exhibiting the film was also filed, which was allowed and impugned in the case.

Contentions of the Parties

The Appellants claimed that they had obtained the legal rights to the film from the original owner of the intellectual property rights of the book, which inspired the film. They argued that since the story of Jaswinder Kaur was already well-known and had been the subject of several movies, the information they used in their film was already in the public domain. Additionally, they obtained the rights specifically from the author of the book. Further, they argued that the respondents had no right to claim copyright over common human behaviour already in the public domain. To support their argument, they cited Section 13 of the Copyright Act of 1957, which states that copyright protection exists only for completed intellectual works. The Appellants also pointed out the delay in raising objections, as the film was already completed before any objection was made.

In response, Respondent No.1 argued that the film depicted the life story of Jaswinder Kaur, the wife of respondent No.5. They claimed that the film involved some parts of respondent No.5’s life story as well, for which they had obtained permission through a prior contract. They contended that while some parts of Jaswinder Kaur’s life were public knowledge, the details of her relationship and the love story with respondent No.5 were not and thus required permission. They argued that only they had the right to make the film, as they had purchased the life story rights from respondent No.5. They defended the timing of the lawsuit filing, stating there was no delay, and countered the argument that copyright extinguishes with the death of the person by stating that respondent No.5 was still alive.

Court’s Ruling

The Court stated that the Copyright Act of 1957 defines various terms such as ‘artistic work’, ‘author’, ‘cinematograph film’, ‘infringing copy’, ‘producer’, and ‘work’. The Act also specifies the works in which copyright subsists and the meaning of copyright. The Court clarified that in order to claim copyright over any material, it must qualify as an existing work created with intellectual effort and creativity. A mere idea or fact, without any effort by a person to convert it into a work, cannot be considered a ‘work’ that can be copyrighted. Copyright infringement only occurs when there is a reproduction, copying or performance of a ‘work’. Therefore, the Court opined that no infringement can be claimed unless a pre-existing work is created by the person claiming copyright by investing his creativity, intelligence or effort. In this context, Sukhwinder Singh’s life story alone doesn’t qualify for copyright as he had not created any work.

Dreamline Reality Movies claimed to have purchased rights to produce a film based on Sukhwinder Singh’s story, but the Court considered this ineligible for copyright protection. On the contrary, T-Series claimed the right to make a movie based on a book containing Jaswinder Kaur’s story, which incidentally included parts of Sukhwinder Singh’s life. The Court affirmed T-Series’ legal right to produce such a film, noting that the story of Jaswinder Kaur, including her tragic murder, had already been widely documented in court records and media publications, rendering it part of the public domain.

The Court cited legal precedents, namely Krishna Kishore Singh v. Sarla A. Saraogi and Ramgopal Varma v. Perumalla Amrutha and found no prima facie case favouring Dreamline Reality Movies. Additionally, the Court highlighted that the lawsuit sought to restrain T-Series from producing a film based on Jaswinder Kaur’s story, not Sukhwinder Singh’s. Since Jaswinder Kaur had passed away without leaving any published or unpublished works, her legal heirs could not claim copyright over her story.

Furthermore, the Court examined the assignment of rights claimed by Dreamline Reality Movies from Sukhwinder Singh. It clarified that under Section 18 of the Copyright Act, only existing copyright in an existing work could be assigned, which was not the case here. The Court also addressed Sukhwinder Singh’s right to privacy, asserting that he lacked celebrity or publicity rights that could be commercially exploited. It emphasised that the right to privacy encompasses aspects intrinsic to one’s existence and unique personal choices but does not extend to every aspect of personality. Consequently, the Court allowed T-Series’ appeal and overturned the trial court’s order dated 23-11-2023.

In this matter, the judiciary’s decision to set aside the injunction against T-Series and allow the release of ‘Dear Jassi’ signifies not only a victory for creative freedom and intellectual property rights but also a precedent-setting ruling that defines the boundaries of copyright protection in the realm of biographical stories.

Authors: Manisha Singh and Kratika Patel

First Published by: Lexology here