Hollywood Copyrights and Bollywood Copy(right!?)

‘Plagiarism’ is not a foreign word to the entertainment industry. It is not uncommon in Bollywood to dress ‘plagiarism’ as ‘inspiration’. Studies show that nearly eight out of every ten Bollywood movies produced is “inspired” by one or more Hollywood films. Bollywood has time and again faced criticism for its “blatant copying” of Hollywood storylines and for having taken undue advantage of the unfamiliarity of the Indian audiences with respect to international films. Although very few western studios attempted to bring a suit proceeding against Bollywood filmmakers for blatant infringement of copyrights in the past, this trend has seen a clear change in the light of a recent case where, Twentieth Century Fox sued a Bollywood studio for allegedly making a movie with a “script and screenplay” that was “virtually identical” to the Hollywood movie “Phone Booth”.

The decision of the Bombay High Court in Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation v. Sohail Maklai Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. & anr., was the first judicial opinion in India holding a Bollywood studio liable for unlawfully copying of a Hollywood film. The Plaintiff (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation), who owns the copyright over the film “Phone Booth” claimed that the Defendants through their film ‘Knock Out” had infringed its copyrights. In furtherance to this, the Plaintiff prayed injunction seeking to restrain the Defendant’s from releasing its film ‘Knock Out’ in theatres or broadcasting it or otherwise communicating it to the public in any manner or exporting its copies so as to infringe the script, screen, storyline and dialogues in the copyrighted work or so as to pass off the said film as the Plaintiff’s film, as an Indian version thereof.

The Hon’ble Court on considering the materials placed on record, table of similarities and dis-similarities prepared by the parties and on a scene by scene comparison held that the similarities in the films could not be merely co-incidental. The Defendants contented that there could be no copyright in an idea, and the Hon’ble Court while agreeing to it partially, re-emphasised that copyright is contained only in the original expression of the idea. It is the thought that is sought to be portrayed and conveyed which carries a copyright and not the original idea. Therefore by applying it to the present case, it held that, the image portrayed or the expression made is essentially unique to the author. If such an expression in the shots of a film is copied or lifted from an earlier film, the infringement is complete.

The Defendants further contented that only a tiny part of the film, that is the basic concept of the film happens to be similar to the Plaintiff’s film and that there was no infringement of the substantial part of the Plaintiff s film. The Court to this contention opined that, it is the quality of the copied work and not the quantity that would determine infringement of the work or a substantial part thereof.

The Hon’ble Court used the sound, settled principles laid down in the landmark cases on copyright infringement in Anand Vs. M/s Delux Films (1978) 4 SCC 118 and Zee Telefilm Ltd. vs. Sundial Communication Pvt. Ltd to arrive at a conclusion that, “the test of concluding whether the second work is a pirated copy is the impression of the average viewer. The other test is that if those parts were removed from the copied work whether the remainder would become meaningless and hence what must be seen is the substance, the foundation, the kernel and the copied work and to see if the rest can stand without it.” By applying these tests, the Hon’ble Court held that “there was little doubt that a person seeing both the films at different times would come to the unmistakable conclusion that the Defendant’s film is a copy of the Plaintiff’s film.” The Court further opined that the original novel expression of the idea in both the films relates to a man being held hostage in a telephone booth by a sniper. Thus, the Defendant’s film, ‘Knock Out’, indeed amounted to an infringement of the Plaintiff’s copyrighted work ‘Phone Booth’ under the Indian Copyright Act. The Court thus granted injunction in favour of the Plaintiffs and awarded the Plaintiff an injunctive relief until the Defendant paid $340,000 in damages. Twentieth Century was also awarded a portion of Knock Out’s box office revenues.

This decision has successfully managed to deter Bollywood copycats from attempting to make unauthorised remakes of Hollywood films, thereby increasing the confidence of international movie makers in seeking remedies for copyright infringement through Indian Courts. Attempts by various Bollywood production houses to legally acquire rights to remake Hollywood films however, shouldn’t go unnoticed. Such constructive efforts protect intellectual property interests, thereby improving and developing better relations with International film makers, especially Hollywood.

Authored by Bhuvana S. Babu
Sources:12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8910, 11