Renounced Riches, Not Rights! Court upholds Sanyasi’s copyrights

The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust is a public charitable trust registered under the Bombay Public Trusts Act of 1950. The Trust is engaged in printing, publishing, and distributing books, writings, and speeches given by the Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (herein referred to as “Srila Prabhupada”).

While performing the rites of becoming a Sanyasi, Srila Prabhupada assigned the copyrights and publication rights of his writings to the Trust by executing a trust deed.

In 2020, during an anti-piracy sweep done by the Trust, it was found that certain websites, including www.friendswithbooks.com (hereinafter referred to as the “Website”) were carrying complete copies of 50 works whose copyrights vested with the Trust. This was, however, not authorised by the Trust or Srila Prabhupada, and hence a suit for infringement was filed against the Website as per S.14(a) of the Copyright Act, 1957.

The Court granted an ex-parte interim injunction restraining the Website from issuing copies of the work of Srila Prabhupada on its platform or any other website. However, the counsels for the Website raised an argument stating that a ‘Sanyasi’ (Srila Prabhupada) could not own copyright in his works since he renounced all his worldly possessions and that renunciation is akin to a civil death.

The Court observed that there was no relinquishment of copyright as per Section 21 of the Copyright Act, instead only the assignment of copyright has been effected in favour of the Trust.

Section 21 of the Copyright Act, 1957 states that:

21. Right of author to relinquish copyright.—
(1) The author of a work may relinquish all or any of the rights comprised in the copyright in the work by giving notice in the prescribed form to the Registrar of Copyrights or by way of public notice and thereupon such rights shall, subject to the provisions of sub-section (3), cease to exist from the date of the notice.
(2) On receipt of a notice under sub-section (1), the Registrar of Copyrights shall cause it to be published in the Official Gazette and in such other manner, as he may deem fit.
(2-A) The Registrar of Copyrights shall, within fourteen days from the publication of the notice in the Official Gazette, post the notice on the official website of the Copyright Office so as to remain in the public domain for a period of not less than three years.
(3) The relinquishment of all or any of the rights comprised in the copyright in a work shall not affect any rights subsisting in favour of any person on the date of the notice referred to in sub-section (1).”

Reliance was placed on cases such as Math Sauna v Kedar Nath alias Uma Shankar, (1982) 1 SCR 659, Swami Gurudev Muni Chela Sant Sewa Dass Ji v. State, 2015 SCC OnLine Del 12506 to clarify the fact that there is no bar on the right of a sanyasi from holding property. Similarly relying on the case of Sulamangalam R. Jayalakshmi and Anr. V. Meta Musicals & Ors, 2000 3 LW 38, the Court also observed that the creation of a work using one’s intellect gives them an exclusive right over it. Being a sanyasi or a person who follows an ascetic life does not strip them of their rights over what has been created by them. As per S.17, a copyright vests in a person owing to the efforts taken by that person in creating the work and, therefore, subsists as such under law.

The Court stated that the books and speeches written by Srila Prabhupada are a result of his own intellect which has not been relinquished by him as per S.21, making him the copyright holder as per law. The Court further analysed that such a right would stand extinguished only if the person transfers or relinquishes the right by a process known to law, and not otherwise.

The Court decreed the suit in favour of the Trust and restrained the Website from issuing unauthorised copies of the works authored by Srila Prabhupada and held by the Trust as assignee.

Citation: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust India V. www.friendwithbooks.com decided by the High Court of Delhi on 5th April, 2024, CS(COMM) 88/2021 & I.A. 78/2023

Authored by Ms. Meera Elsa George, Intern (May 2024), BananaIP Counsels

Reviewed and confirmed by Ms. Naika Salaria, Copyright Team, BananaIP Counsels

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