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  • Writer's pictureDrsika Bhutani

High Court: No Copyright in an idea, subject matter, themes, plots, historical or legendary facts

Introduction:


A recent decision by the Madras High Court (hereinafter referred to as “the Hon’ble Court”), in Aarur Tamilnandan v. S. Sankar has reiterated that copyright cannot be claimed over an idea or a concept. In the civil suit, a dispute arose over the film "Enthiran" and its alleged infringement upon Aarur Tamilnadan's story titled "Jugiba." The plaintiff, Aarur Tamilnadan, sought a declaration that "Enthiran" was an infringing copy of his work and demanded Rs.1,00,00,000/- ($122,200 approx.) as damages from the defendants, S. Sankar and Sun TV Network Limited.


Brief Facts:


A Tamil author, Aarur Tamilnandan, had approached the court in 2010 stating that the story writer and director, S. Sankar, had made the film “Enthiran” starring superstar Rajnikanth and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, based on his story published and registered in 1996. Tamilnandan in his petition submitted that he had penned a Humanoid Robo story “Jugiba” which was first published in a Tamil magazine ‘Iniya Udayam’ in April 1996 and later on was published as a novel ‘Thik Theepika’ in 2007 and this novel was available for sale. After seeing the film “Enthiran” in October 2010, Tamilnandan found himself going to the courts as he believed that his story had been copied for the film. The film “Enthiran” was released in various languages, including but not limited to, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, etc., and had made a huge profit from various sources. In the petition, Tamilnandan sought damages of Rs. 1,00,00,000/- (1 crore) from the Defendants.


Court’s Observation:


Subsequent to the perusing of the evidence, the Hon’ble Court stated that there were a number of stark differences and dissimilarities between Tamilnandan’s story “Jugiba” and the story of S. Sankar’s. The Hon’ble High court of Madras stated there can be no copyright in an idea, subject, matter, themes, plots, or historical or legendary facts and violation of the copyrights in such cases is confined to the form, manner and arrangements and expression of the idea by the author of the copyright work, therefore in cases where the same idea is being developed in a different manner, since the source is the same there can be similarities but then in such cases court should determine whether or not similarities are on fundamental or substantial aspects of the mode of expression adopted in the copyrighted work.


The Hon’ble High Court further suggested a test to determine whether there has been a violation of copyright and that is to see if the reader, spectator, or the viewers after seeing the work gets an unmistakable impression that the work appears to be a copy of the original. Therefore, in cases where the theme is the same but is presented in a different manner so that the work becomes a totally new work, there would be no violation of copyright.


The following issues were framed by the Court:


(i) Whether the plaintiff is the author and first owner of the copy right of the story Enthiran, which was stolen from the original story?


(ii) Whether the film Enthiran is the infringed story of the plaintiff's 'Jugiba'?


(iii) Whether the plaintiff is entitled to the claim of damages?


(iv) Whether the plaintiff is entitled to the relief of permanent injunction as prayed for?


(v) Whether the plaintiff is entitled for production of accounts by the defendants of the profit made by infringing the plaintiff's story?


(vi) To what other reliefs, the plaintiffs are entitled?


The Hon’ble Court placed reliance on the case R.G.Anand vs M/s Delux films and others, where it was held by the Apex court that there can be no copyright over idea or concept and thus even though both the stories of the plaintiff and the defendant are based on humanoid robots, the story of humanoid robot was presented differently by the defendant and with a different expression. In fact, in the oral testimony of the plaintiff, it was stated that there were changes to the storyline and therefore, there was no acceptable evidence available on record.


Therefore, in such circumstances the plaintiff had failed to prove its case and consequently, the issue Nos. (i) and (ii) are answered against the plaintiff and in favor of the defendants and in the view of the conclusion reached by the court issue (iii) and (vi) were also answered against the plaintiff. The Court emphasized that Tamilnadan did not present any independent witnesses to substantiate his claim that the similarities between his story and that of Sankar’s film “Enthiran” were significant enough to constitute a literal imitation. It was suggested that Tamilnadan could have called upon witnesses who had read his story and watched S. Sankar's movie to establish that S. Sankar's story was essentially a direct copy of his own. However, Tamilnadan failed to produce any independent witnesses. Consequently, apart from his own testimony, there was no evidence on record demonstrating that both stories were identical. The Court noted that at the very least, Tamilnadan should have served a notice to S. Sankar, requesting him to provide the storyline or script of his movie "Enthiran." Regrettably, Aarur Tamilnadan did not make any such effort, making it impossible for the Court to compare the storylines. Therefore, the plaintiff, Tamilnandan, was not entitled to any relief and the suit was liable to be dismissed and was directed to pay the cost of suit to S. Sankar.


Conclusion:


Today, the know-how of the legal framework for the creative industry becomes extremely important as we partake in the exploration and usage of Intellectual Property Rights. The judgement by the Hon’ble High Court of Madras does exactly that. By setting the stage and establishing a precedent for the cases that would fall under the ambit of Copyright Law, the judgement redefines the scope of law. A mere reproduction of a concept is not enough; there is a growing need for creators to focus on producing their work in a distinctive manner in order to ensure that their expression of an idea is deemed to be original. The verdict also emphasizes the need to protect artistic expression while honouring IP rights. Artists are free to take ideas from anywhere, but they must work hard to incorporate their own unique style into their finished products. Creative industries thrive when there is a happy medium between restrictions on expression and legal safeguards for original works. Frivolous claims regarding copyrights that tend to come up time and again are prevented by highlighting the idea that copyright protects expressions rather than ideas and ultimately promoting a just and competitive market for works in creative fields. These requirements are not only legally compliant, but they also ensure that the artist is constantly challenging themselves and their creative streak in order to produce work that is one of a kind and deserves legal protection. Ultimately, this landmark ruling reinforces the core tenets of copyright law, guiding creators, filmmakers, and the entire creative community towards an environment that values originality, encourages creativity, and ensures that intellectual property rights are upheld with due respect. In the end, this significant decision affirms the fundamental principles of copyright law, directing authors, filmmakers, and the entire creative community towards a culture that respects originality, fosters creativity, and upholds intellectual property rights.


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