Bombay High Court on Idea-Expression Dichotomy
Copyright protects the literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic work, cinematographic work, and sound recordings. This form of intellectual property gives an absolute right to the creator and the author for their work and any infringement can be claimed. Literary works also include computer programs, tables, and compilations including computer databases which may be expressed in words, codes, schemes, or in any other form, including a machine-readable medium. Section 14 of the copyright act provides the rights that can be exercised by the owner of the copyright or by any other person who is duly licensed in this regard by the owner of the copyright. These rights include the right of adaptation, right of reproduction, right of publication, right to make translations, communication to the public, etc.
The recent case in Bombay High Court regarding the dispute between a novel and a web series, both named Singardaan caught the attention of IP enthusiasts. The short stories written by Singardaan in Urdu was published in 1993 in a magazine and also in the plaintiff own collection named Singardaan and even translated in a various language like English, Marathi, Punjabi, etc. The plaintiff contends that the defendant has copied everything, the title, plot, and characters of the story, and accordingly, seeks damages as well as injunctive reliefs in the suit and prays for temporary reliefs. The said contention was refused by the Defendants, saying that the storyline and the plot are different in both the case
The plaintiff’s story revolved around a vanity case which was called ‘SINGARDAAN’ and it belongs to a courtesan. The vanity box is looted from the courtesan during riots, and taken to the residence of the looter. Thereafter, womenfolk in the looter’s family start behaving like the courtesan, leading the looter to ponder and regret his theft of the courtesan’s article. The defendant on the other hand claimed that the story has been developed differently and any similarities are merely conceptual overlap.
The court extensively went into the storyline and the plot in question. The court relied upon various previous judgments to support its decision. The court while substantiating the point of infringement over the title, relied upon the case of Krishika Lulla vs Shyam Devkatta where the SC said that there cannot be a case of copyright infringement only because the same title has been used but it can be passing off and for passing off the plaintiff must prove the reputation been associated with it. Undoubtedly, the plaintiff has the copyright over the work, and for that, the plaintiff has to prove that the essentials of copyright infringement.
The concept of copyright is clear. The copyright subsists in the expression and not in the idea associated with it. The court also reiterated what the US Supreme Court said in Mazer vs. stein: “Unlike a patent, a copyright gives no exclusive right to the art disclosed; protection is given only to the expression of the idea - not the idea itself." The court also relied upon the decision of XYZ films vs. UTV Motion Pictures stating that the elements of themes. Plot and storyline are not bare and constitute “expression” and are essential for the story and if they are copied, there can be the case of infringement.
Relying upon the judgments mentioned above and also with RG Anand, the court observes that there are various points in which the defendant copied the work of the plaintiff. For any common man, if he watches the web series and has also read the novel, the similarity can be easily pointed out. The defendant has copied the theme plot and storyline and has developed it in a different format. The judge while observing also relied upon that if someone steals this theme, plot, and storyline, is he not thereby plagiarising the expression of the plaintiff’s work? Can the above theme, plot, and storyline be simply dismissed as non-protectable ideas of the plaintiff’s work and not its expression?
Finally, the court decided that the defendant's web series constitutes copyright infringement and is liable for the same. The court directed the defendant to restrict the adaptation of the work. Not only that, but the court also directed the defendant to provide compensation and adequate remuneration. The court directed to share the profit made by the defendant with the plaintiff.
Author: Saransh Chaturvedi (an advocate) currently pursuing LLM from Rajiv Gandhi School of Intellectual Property Law (IIT Kharagpur). In case of any queries please contact/write back Global Patent Filing us at email@example.com.