Copyright Contract Case: Phoolan Devi

There are some situations where contracts and Copyright Law overlap. You may have licensed your work to somebody else, transferring the copyrights you own over it, but there are still cases where you can claim authorship rights after the transfer. In this post, I shall be analyzing 2 cases in the Media & Entertainment industry where Section 57 of the Copyright Act can have an effect on Contracts for licensing of any literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work.

One of the leading cases in this topic is the case of Phoolan Devi v. Shekhar Kapoor decided by the Delhi High Court. In this case, the Plaintiff was an alleged Indian Bandit. The Defendants (6 in number) are producers and directors who wanted to make a film on the life of the Plaintiff called “Bandit Queen”. After the making of the film, the Plaintiff was not shown either the rough or the final version of the movie, despite repeated demands. Moreover the movie showed graphical details of Plaintiff being raped and paraded naked, none of which were true. There were various writings of the Plaintiff which the Defendants had used (with permission of the Plaintiff). There was a contract between the Plaintiff and the Defendants wherein the Defendants were allowed to cut, alter or adapt writings of Plaintiff in any manner they liked. The court ruled that the Defendants had no right to exhibit the film as it had intruded with the right to privacy, and since the balance of convenience weighed in favor of the Plaintiff, an injunction can be granted. Secondly, and more importantly the agreement never meant that the Plaintiff gave consent to make the film in any manner they liked, including exhibiting sexual abuse which has been shown with graphic details in the film. On analyzing the case, the fact that she didn’t get to see a film made about her own life, but others get to see it before her, was unfair. They had misrepresented the facts of the movie, which would render the contract between them as void, reason being that they entered into a contract to do one thing, but they are doing another thing because what they made wasn’t a true life story. Allowing the Defendants to make the movie in any manner they liked including exhibiting sexual abuse which has been shown with graphic details in the film, goes against Section 57 of the Copyright Act. The movie was approved by the censor board, but just because it was approved doesn’t mean that it could be viewed, as exhibition of the movie would violate Article 21 of the Constitution of India, the right to privacy which the Plaintiff is entitled to. Lastly, display of such false events in the movie would create a wrong impression about her and her personality in the society, more so since she was facing murder charges and it could influence the judges to giving a negative decision.

The other case I shall be discussing about is the case of Sai Paranjpaye v PLA Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. and Ors decided by the Bombay High Court. In this case, the Plaintiff made a film in 1981 called ‘Chashme Buddoor’, which was assigned to the Defendants through a contract. She (Plaintiff) saw promotions and trailers of the film on 7th Feb 2013. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants have mutilated and distorted her film. She wrote to Film Writers Association (FWA) Mumbai seeking Rs. 1 Crore as damages for the settlement of morality and copyright violation on 12th March. The FWA forwarded the complaint to the Defendants. Since FWA didn’t take up this case after PFA Entertainment’s reply to the complaint, the Plaintiff decided to approach the court for relief. The court decided that the Plaintiff was negligent in not keeping herself informed about the public notices which the Defendants had constantly published in various media such as newspaper, internet and magazines between a period of 2011 and 2013 and there was an unreasonable delay in approaching the court. The court also decided that the gap of one month was too long and the Plaintiff could not come to the court just one day before the release of the film claiming moral right violations, which wasn’t even true as the censor board had approved the film. Since the Censor board had approved the film, there was nothing vulgar or obscene in the film, as stated by the Plaintiff in the plaint. Therefore, claiming relief against distortion or mutilation under Section 57 of the Copyright Act would not stand. There was also an unreasonable delay in approaching the court as she had her objections about the film in early February, but approached the Court in the later half of March, which is prima facie unreasonable.

Now in these two cases, there were a few differences which can be noted. The reason why the judgment favored Phoolan Devi was because there was a question of privacy and morality which was a major consideration in the decision. There was no such argument or consideration in Sai Paranjpaye’s case. Chashme Buddoor was not based on a real life story and the censor board had approved it, which renders it acceptable to exhibit to the public. Therefore, the allegation of it being vulgar and obscene falls flat. Moreover, there was no delay in Phoolan Devi bringing the case to the court. As soon as she had noticed such scenes, she approached the court. On the other hand, Sai Paranjpaye had delayed this issue from the court’s notice for a month and approached the court only one day before its release, which shows unreasonable delay on the Plaintiff’s part. Even though Counsel for the Plaintiff cited the case of Ram Sampath v Rajesh Roshan to explain how the court can order for relief one day before release of the film, the court distinguished the facts of the case by showing how in the Ram Sampath case, the issue was raised in the court immediately, unlike in the present case.

These two cases give us examples about how section 57 of the Copyright Act can have an effect on Contracts for licensing and transfer of literary work.

Contributed by Akash Srinivasan (Intern at BananaIP Counsels)