CASE ANALYSIS: ‘S.J Suryah (a.k.a. S. Justin Selvaraj) v. S.S Chakravarty &Anr. (OSA No.138 of 2021) by the Hon’ble High Court of Madras’(OSA No.138 of 2021)’.

Recently, videorder passed in aforementioned case, theDivision Bench of the Hon’ble Madras High Court dismissed the Appeal filed by the Appellant/Plaintiffseeking grantof an injunction for Copyright infringement against the Respondents/ Defendants with respect to the remake rights of the film, ‘Vaalee’ (‘the film’).The judgment revisits and reaffirms the law on first ownership of cinematograph films.

  • FACTUAL BACKGROUND OF THE CASE:

1.1 In 1997, on the proposal of an actor, namely, Ajith Kumar, the Appellant/Plaintiff came up with a story and script for a film which proposed to starAjit Kumar as the lead and the Appellant/Plaintiff himself as the director.The Appellant/Plaintiffclaimed that he had come up with the story, screenplay and the dialogue for the film. The first Respondent/Defendant agreed to produce the film based on the said story and engaged the Appellant/ Plaintiff as the director. The Tamil film, ‘Vaalee’,was released in the year 1999 and came to be a blockbuster.

1.2 The Appellant/Plaintiff had not assigned the underlying Copyright in the story, screenplay and dialogue to the first Respondent/Defendant.When the aforesaid movie was released in the year 1999, the Appellant/Plaintiff was given credit for the story, screenplay and dialogue pertaining to the film. However, the Appellant/Plaintiff ‘s contention was that as the director of the film and the author of the story, screenplay and dialogue, he was the owner of Copyright in the story, screenplay and dialogue of the film and that remaking of the film would not be possible without infringing his Copyright. Thus,the Appellant contented that Defendant No.1/Producer of the movie could not have assigned the remake rights of the movie to Defendant No.2.

1.3 During the course of the proceedings, it was brought on record that the Telegu dubbing rights were sold in 1998 itself and the film was remade in Kannada in 2001, i.e., 20 years ago. The Appellant however, had not raised any objections or claims with respect to the rights over the film at that time.

1.4 The Appellant/Plaintiff proceeded to file a suit under Order VII Rule 1 of the Code of Civil Procedure,1908 read with Order IV Rule 1 of the Original Side Rules against the Respondents/Defendants for a declaration that the Appellant /Plaintiff is the author of the story, screenplay and dialogue of the film and that the re-make rights for the movie vest exclusively with him. The Appellant claimedthat any agreement between Respondents/Defendants pertaining to re-make of the said movie would be an infringement of his Copyright and therefore,null and void. The Appellant thussought a permanent injunction restraining the Respondents/Defendants from dealing with or making use of the re-make rights of the film in any language.

1.5 The Appellant filed an Application under Order XIV Rule 8 of O.S Rules read with Order XXXIX Rules 1 and 2 Code of Civil Procedure,1908seeking an order of interim injunction restraining the Defendants or any other person from in any manner making use of or dealing with the “re-make” rights of the film pending disposal of the Civil suit.

However, the Appellant/Plaintiff’s plea of injunction was rejected by both, the Hon’ble Single Judge as well as the Hon’ble Division Bench.

The Hon’ble Court considered, inter alia, the following issues:

  1. Who is the owner of the film in terms of the Copyright Act?
  2. Whether the Appellant/Plaintiff is entitled to the reliefs soughtwhen he had approached the Hon’ble Court after a period nearly around two decades?
  3. Whether the credits given to the Appellant/Plaintiff as the writer, and director of the movie entitles him to claim original ownership of the script,screenplay, and dialoguesof the film, particularly so in the absence of a written contract?
  4. Whether the Appellant/Plaintiff had acquiescedby not objecting to the earlier remake and dubbing of the movie in Kannada andTelugu respectively?

HELD

The Hon’ble Court held that Appellant/Plaintiff was not able to showprima facieto establish its case of Copyright ownership over the film. Merely because the producer gave credits to the Appellant as the author of the screenplay and   dialogue, does not entitle the Appellant to claim ownership of Copyright over the film’s screenplay etc.  The Courts also took note of the Appellant’s failure to place on record any agreement/contract that assigned his rights over the film’s screenplay. Therefore, the plea sought by the Appellant/Plaintiff for interim relief of injunction was dismissed by the Courts.

ANALYSIS

Copyright is a statutory right and there is no common law right beyond the statute. That Copyright subsists in the expression and not in the idea is an elementary principle of Copyright law. Section 2(d)(v) and Section 17 of the Copyright Act, 1957 further establish that it is the producer, as the author of the cinematograph film, who owns the Copyright in the film.In the present case the Appellant/Plaintiff sought to distinguish his case by relying upon the credits given to him for story, screenplay and dialogue. However, in the absence of any document to suggest that the Appellant had retained the copyright in story, screenplay or dialogue in the film, the Court relied upon the statutory provisions, to reject the Appellant’s prayer for an interim injunction against the Respondents.

Anjali Tiwari, Associate

Anjali is an Associate at TMT Law Practice. She was called to the Bar in June, 2019 and has gained considerable exposure through her experiences at different institutions. She has valuable experience of over 2 years and is a member of the Delhi High Court Bar vide membership No.19169/2019. Her primary areas of interest and expertise is Dispute Resolution, including but not limited to Injunction Suits, Declaration Suits, Recovery suits, Quashing petitions, writ Petitions, Criminal matters including the Bail Matters, Matrimonial Disputes including the Domestic Violence Cases, Divorce Petitions, Maintenance Petitions, Custody of Child under the Guardianship Act, Arbitration Matters. She is assisting and representing Clients with Commercial Dispute Resolution and General Corporate Advisory. She has considerable exposure at assisting and representing clients ranging from individuals, corporates to government departments before various fora, including trial courts, High Court of Delhi, Supreme Court of India as well as Tribunals.

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