From Lord of the Rings to Life of Pi to Shawshank Redemption, we have all time and again enjoyed these movies that were wonderful adaptations of popular books mostly by the same name. Being an avid reader, I personally always favour books over movies. However, this is when the movie duly credits the book it has been adapted from. What happens in case a movie or series significantly copies the title, plot and storyline of an author but outrightly asserts that “any resemblance to anyone’s work is purely coincidental”? (carefully reading disclaimers in the beginning of movies do come in handy at times!)
The Bombay High Court was posed with a similar question to answer in the recent feud between Shamoil Ahmad Khan and Falguni Shah. Shamoil Ahmad Khan, the plaintiff, alleged that Falguni Shah and others, the defendants, had plagiarized his popular short story named ‘Singardaan’ into a web series by the same name. The story was written in Urdu and Hindi by the plaintiff and was published in 1994. It was also later adapted and performed as a play. The defendants produced a web series named ‘Singardaan’ which was released on the app ‘Ullu’, YouTube and other platforms. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants had not only copied the title of the plaintiff’s work but also the plot, storyline and characters. He, therefore, approached the Court with a copyright infringement suit seeking temporary injunction and damages against the defendants. The defendants argued that apart from the central idea, there was no similarity between the two works and also presented a comprehensive chart with about thirty distinctions between the story and the web series.
To give the readers an idea about the two, here is a short summary of the story and the series.
The plaintiff’s story is set in the backdrop of riots. The protagonist, a Hindu, who is a rioter barges into a brothel and steals away the ‘singardaan’ (dressing table and/or makeup box) from a Muslim prostitute to take it home to his wife and three daughters. The story takes an interesting twist when the wife and daughters of the protagonist get instantly attracted to the singardaan and he observes stark changes in their behaviour, appearance and body language in the days to follow. Their provocative dressing, seductive behaviour, make up et al resembles that of a prostitute.
The story in the web series depicts the life of a Muslim prostitute who falls in love with a married Hindu protagonist. The protagonist being a God fearing man, stayed miles away from places like a brothel until he met the woman and was impressed with her personality, intellect and beauty. The protagonist had a wife and a daughter. One day, riots broke out in his town and he immediately came back home from work only to get the news that the rioters had attacked the brothel where his mistress lived. Despite his wife’s protests, he sets out to meet the woman only to find the brothel covered in blood. Upon reaching his mistress’s room, he finds her alive but badly wounded. The woman before taking her last breath requests the protagonist to destroy her singardaan. He, however, preserves it to keep it as her last memory and brings it home. That day onward, he starts to see behavioral changes in his wife and daughter. They start dressing provocatively and their demeanor changes. He catches his daughter in a compromising position with a man at his house, some days later. He links these changes in their behavior back to the time he brought the singardaan and remembers his conversation with his mistress about getting rid of it. He finally buries the singardaan and the story concludes.
Naturally, the age-old debate of the idea v. expression dichotomy came into picture again in this case where the court tried to ascertain whether copyright extended to the plot, storyline or characters in a story or did it also cover the central theme or central idea? The purpose of summarizing the two stories above was to stand in consonance with the Supreme Court’s test in the landmark case of R.G.Anand v. Deluxe Films and open the question of deciding on the case of plagiarism to our readers. (Opinions are welcome in Comments!) The Supreme Court had proposed, “One of the surest and the safest test to determine whether or not there has been a violation of copyright is to see if the reader, spectator or the viewer after having read or seen both works is clearly of the opinion and gets an unmistakable impression that the subsequent work appears to be a copy of the original.”
Justice, S.C. Gupte, in the present case relied on the notion of “extraction” while deciding the subject matter of this case. He explained that in a written work of art, a germ of an idea is developed into a theme and then into a plot and finally into a story with the help of characters and settings. In order to find out whether there has been a copyright infringement, one needs to strip the final work into its various elements and come to the point where just the bare idea or abstraction remains which is no longer protected by copyright. Where to draw a line in this ‘series of abstraction’ is left on courts to decide.
Justice Gupte applied this process of abstraction for the plaintiff’s story ‘Singardaan’ by stripping the story of its embellishments, moods and motivations and carved out the plot and storyline of the work to summarily be: A Hindu protagonist has a wife and three daughters. He participates in a riot and ransacks a brothel, thereby, stealing an ancestral ‘Singardaan’ from a Muslim prostitute and brings it back to his home. His wife and daughters instantly like the ‘Singardaan’ and he shortly notices visible changes in their appearance and mannerisms where they start to behave like prostitutes. This narration, Justice Gupte establishes, is the life and blood of the Plaintiff’s story and therefore, is definitely copyrightable.
Upon further stripping the story of its religious identities, setting, taking away the ‘Singardaan’, presence of the protagonist, wife and daughters, he opines, one may come to an extraction which may not be copyrightable. The extraction may then just be of an idea where a thing belonging to someone brings out a change in appearance or behaviour of its user. If someone used this idea to create a work of art, it might not attract any charge of actionable plagiarism or copyright infringement. However, the web series produced by the defendants, very clearly seems to be a copy of plaintiff’s theme, plot and storyline. Justice Gupte emphasized that if one sees the series after having read the plaintiff’s story, one will clearly think it to be an adaptation of the plaintiff’s story. A very substantial and materialistic part has been inspired by the short story in the web series which cannot be overlooked. He added that if the case went for a full-fledged trial, the plaintiff’s case has a very reasonable prospect of succeeding.
The court, therefore, held that the plaintiff’s work was illegitimately used for the creation of the web series without his consent. It ordered the defendants to refrain from any further adaptations of the plaintiff’s work. Weighing the balance of convenience in favour of the defendants, the court refused to grant injunction to the plaintiff but ordered him compensation in terms of adequate remuneration or a share of profits. To prepare, in case the suit was set down for trial, the court ordered the defendants to maintain accounts of the profits made from the web series from the date of its publication till date. We’ll keep a close eye on the developments of this case, if any. Till then let’s just enjoy the journey of Frodo Baggins looking for the ring..again!
Nichols v. Universal Corp.45 F.2d 119 (2d Cir. 1930).
R.G. Anand v. Deluxe Corp. “…in order to be actionable the copy must be a substantial and material one which at once leads to the conclusion that the defendant is guilty of an act of piracy”