In a spiralling turn of events, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India delivered a judgment, in the case, Krishika Lulla v. Shyam Vithalrao Devkatta,[i] spelling out clearly that no copyright existed in the “title” of a literary work, further adding that the only remedy available in similar such cases would be a passing off action, even with respect to a registered trademark, involving such titles.
The facts of the case thus follow; the complainant, i.e. the Respondent in this case, wrote a story along with a synopsis, titled, ‘Desi Boys’. He got the synopsis registered with the Film Writers Association, Mumbai, in late 2008. Meanwhile, his friend informed him that a film story with comedy as its genre was required by a renowned Bollywood film director’s son. Upon request from his friend, the Respondent sent his synopsis, via attachment in a mail, addressed to his friend in late 2009. The latter thereafter forwarded the story, terming it as ‘just an idea’ via mail to another person. The said synopsis contained no information as to the storyline, dialogues, or screenplay. The Respondent’s friend received no response but, the Respondent unexpectedly happened to chance upon the promos of a certain Bollywood film bearing the title Desi Boyz, similar to this synopsis/story titled Desi Boys, with only the difference of the letters ‘s’ and ‘z’. He accordingly stated that the appropriation of the title Desi Boyz was a clear stance of copyright infringement of his story Desi Boys, despite admitting that he had not viewed the film and was unsure as to whether the film was infringing his story in part or whole thereof.
The film Desi Boyz was released in late 2011, according to the Appellants, who stated that the film was purely based on a story written by an author upon a paid contractual agreement in 2009 with them. The main point of dispute in this matter was, if the title of a literary work entitled to protection under copyright, that is the synopsis/story, ‘Desi Boys’ in the present case illustration. Furthermore, the Hon’ble apex court opined that the Copyright Act, 1957, enshrined under its wings, Section 13, which entails protection for original literary works. Emphasizing the same the Hon’ble apex court stated that a title of a literary work could not be evaluated as a ‘work’ as without the storyline it was insufficient in nature.
The court then went on to elucidate the terminology of ‘work’ under ‘literary work’, denoting it to be the main content of the literary work in question and not merely the title itself. Additionally, the court opined that the title ‘Desi Boys’ from the Respondent’s synopsis/story did not contain any literary or imaginative significance as both words connoted two words, commonly and expansively used within India, hence precluded from the delineation of a literary work as well as establishing that no copyright would subsist in the same under Section 13, of the Indian Copyright Act. Various precedents from the High Courts of Madras and Delhi were discussed by the court, verifying the well-settled position and standing taken by the court.
Special mention was given to the radical English case of Dicks vs Yates,[ii] wherein it was held that “there might be copyright in a title as for instance a whole page of title or something of that kind requiring invention”.[iii] The main supposition, culled out by the court in the present case was that there was no copyright in the title Desi Boys and hence no possible infringement could be ruled out. This approach by the apex court has garnered a lot of praise by copyright aficionadas, as a copyright is a bundle of rights accorded to individual(s) for protecting their intellectual creations, and should not be dealt with as a ‘monopoly’ over common expressions or everyday lingos, thereby suppressing various forms of expressions. The apex court also added that generally titles of literary works could not be shielded under the copyright banner, but such protection could be claimed in exceptional or rare circumstances whereby the title in itself was of an ingenious or creative nature.
[i] Criminal Appeal No. 259 of 2013, Delivered on October 15, 2015.
[ii] L. R. 18 Ch. Div. 76 (1881).