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Producer Is Copyright Owner In Film; Giving Credit To Author For Story, Screenplay Not Acknowledgment Of His Copyright: Madras High Court

Sebin James
16 Nov 2021 1:06 PM GMT
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In a copyright dispute on the assignment of remake rights of a film involving Director S.J Suryah, the Madras High Court has held that merely because the producer gave credit to the author for screenplay or dialogue, it would not amount to an acknowledgment of the author's copyright therein.

The Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice P.D Audikesavalu observed,

"There can be no dispute that in respect of a cinematograph film, it is the producer of the film who is the owner of the copyright in the cinematograph film itself...Insofar as the copyright in the original story or the original screenplay or dialogue is concerned, to the extent the same is used in the film upon due consideration therefor being tendered by the producer, the producer is also deemed to be the owner of the copyright therein"

The Court was hearing a challenge against the refusal of trial court to grant an injunction for copyright infringement against the producer and one Fakrudeen Ali, who has brought the remake rights of the film, 'Vaalee'.

The appellant herein is the director of the film. He claimed that credit for the story, screenplay and dialogue pertaining to the film was given to him. Thus, the Trial Court had erred in granting interim injunction, merely because the Petitioner could not produce the written agreement regarding his appointment as the Director.

The Court in this regard observed,

"Merely because the producer gave credit to the appellant herein as the author of the screenplay or the dialogue would not amount to an acknowledgment of the appellant's copyright therein."

It clarified that credit given for a contribution made for a film and copyright over such contribution are two very different matters:

"Ordinarily, a producer has the copyright in the cinematograph film and in the works commissioned in connection therewith. If it is established that the first respondent(Producer) herein had commissioned the appellant for valuable consideration to write the screenplay and the dialogue, the appellant cannot claim any copyright in respect of such matters. However, in the event the appellant can establish that the screenplay or the dialogue were not commissioned but were permitted to be used by the appellant in course of the production of the film, it would be a different matter", the court stressed upon the importance of documents to show that the copyright is retained by someone else other than the producer.

The appellant argued that his exclusive right over elements of the movie automatically rendered the agreement between the producer and the second respondent for the remake rights over 'Vaalee' invalid.

The opposition counsel, on the other hand, had submitted that the broad outline of the story was brought by the appellant, however, it was the producer who engaged a team to work on the same and made a complete screenplay and storyline.

Referring to Section 17 of the Copyrights Act, the Court observed, "In respect of films, particularly cinematographic films, first owner of the copyright is the producer. You may have copyright in the screenplay, but in the compendium of film, the producer has the copyright."

The court also explained that the producer can rope in a scriptwriter for preparing the screenplay and dialogue once the rough outline is given as input. Since the work is essentially commissioned at the instance of the producer, and that too, for a valuable consideration, it is well within the rights of a producer to retain his copyright in the script.

It further noted that the film was already remade in Kannada and Telugu languages since its release in 1999, which was not challenged by the appellant-director.

Now, when it was slated for another remake in Hindi, the director moved the Court.

"It may not lie in the mouth of the appellant herein to protest any remake under the present agreement, since it is the undisputed position that previous remakes of the film have been made in Kannada and Telugu without any protest by the appellant herein. It is not even the appellant's case that the appellant had acquiesced in the remaking of the film "Vaalee" in Kannada or Telugu for the appellant to assert that he is entitled to now protest the remaking of the said film under the present agreement," the Court said.

Regarding the rights of the producer to enter into an agreement with the second respondent, the court observed:

"If the owner of the copyright in a cinematograph film is, by virtue of Section 14(1)(d)(i) entitled to make a copy of the film or remake thereof, such proprietary interest may also be assigned in accordance with law to any other."

To the appellant's submission that the remake will be based on his story and screenplay, the Chief Justice noted that the petitioner will have to show that the new screenplay matches with the original first. However, since the work on the Hindi remake has not progressed much, the court couldn't comment about it at this stage.

Difficulty arises in a quia timet action where the plaintiff cannot indicate the infringement or the degree thereof that may be proposed, the court expressed its view against granting ex post facto reliefs. "An injunction can be granted only when actual infringement or a very wide possibility of infringement is demonstrated", said the bench. It also reminded the appellant counsel that copyright subsists over the expression of an idea and not on the idea itself.

While concluding, the court noted that the appellant-director has failed to produce anything that prima facie denotes his rights over the screenplay and dialogue.

"Even at the interlocutory stage, a degree of the burden of proof has to be discharged by a party seeking interim relief.", the court noted that S.J Suryah couldn't convince the court on that matter. Hence, the plea for interim relief by injunction was dismissed.

Case Title: S.J Suryah (a.k.a. S. Justin Selvaraj) v. S.S Chakravarty & Anr.

Case No: OSA No.138 of 2021

Click Here To Read/ Download Judgment

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