Celebrity Rights vs Privacy: Where to draw the line?


The pathway to understanding who qualifies to be labelled as a celebrity in India is distorted. However, it can be based on two parameters: Authors and Performers. They can claim their status as a celebrity and can have a right over their creation. This article shall discuss celebrity rights & what privacy means to you when you’re constantly in the public domain. Furthermore, the article shall analyze the scope of celebrity rights in light of the recent case of Krishna Kishore Singh v. Sarla A Saraogi.

Factual Matrix

Krishna Kishore Singh, father and legal heir to the late actor Sushant Singh Rajput, filed a suit before the High Court of Delhi seeking protection to the rights, reputation and privacy of his deceased son. Sushant, a well-known face in the television and movie industry died under ‘suspicious circumstances on the 14th of June, 2020. After his demise, Sushant’s father, the successor, made a statement that movies, books or series should not be made based on his son’s life without the prior consent of his family.

Despite that, some work of art was being made to either give a tribute to the late actor or was inspired by his life events. Mr Singh claimed that some of the movies which are currently in the making, namely Shashank & Nyay: The Justice, are inspired by his late son’s life and are violating his rights, reputation and privacy.

The court dismissed the petition as it found no reason to grant a restraining order. The court reasoned that the defendant’s movie contained imaginary dramatization inspired from the real life events that occurred, which were widely circulated by the media and hence, formed a part of public domain or knowledge.

Celebrity Rights in India- An Analysis

Celebrity Rights

Celebrity rights as a concept is still not in the clearest form in India. The copyright act considers two types of people: authors and performers, both of whom have the potential to become famous and have rights to their work. It is worth noting that the previous statement does not mean they will be considered celebrities or only they will be considered celebrities. The Delhi HC referred to personality rights as ‘quasi-property’ right in DM Entertainment v. Baby Gift Horse.

A clear definition of the term celebrity and the right connected can be established by studying laws pertaining to celebrity rights in different jurisdictions. The most comprehensive version of this can be found in Indiana’s publicity statute, which protects names, voices, signatures, photographs, images, likenesses, gestures, and mannerisms. Different jurisdictions in Canada protect names, images, likenesses, and voices, among other things. In Germany, a person’s photo and name are given great respect. 

To sum, from an economic standpoint, anything that may be linked to a celebrity for the purpose of commercial usage might be deemed his or her right, which should be protected by law.

There have been few notable cases in India where the issue of celebrity rights was discussed. One such example is Shivaji Rao Gaikwad v. Varsha Productions, Rajnikanth sought for an injunction order prohibiting the respondent from utilising his name, caricature, style of dialogue delivery and so on in his upcoming film “Main Hoon Rajinikanth”. He alleged infringing on his personality rights. Rajnikanth was also upset that the film contained images of immorality and that the respondent was exploiting his celebrity. 

The court stated that all civilised countries recognise intellectual property rights as valuable rights that cannot be questioned. The Copyright Act, Trade Marks Act, etc. are properly safeguarding the rights of creators. According to Article 21 of the Constitution, everyone is entitled to live a dignified life in society and so no one can harm a person’s name or fame without violating the law. Hence, the court held that the title of the film and the portrayal of Rajnikanth would be degrading his reputation.

In the present case, the Court, while dismissing the petition suit, opined that in case there is any ‘change in circumstances’ after the release of the said films, the plaintiff can re-apply before this court to seek injunction over the streaming of these films and can also seek compensatory damages to the extent of losses faced due to violation of the plaintiff’s rights. In addition, another remedy provided was that the defendants had to render complete and true accounts of the revenue earned from the films by way of sale/licensing of all rights relating to the films.

Privacy v. Public Domain

Celebrities put a large chunk of their life for the public display, the fame that comes along with being an artist tends to keep every move you make available for the public to access. This works in their favour and against them. The celebrities do benefit from this by means of public attention which in turn proves to be better for their brand and financial deals, it also crosses the limits and violates their sense of privacy. However, the right to know about your favourite celebrity cannot be construed to intrude into private matters of the celebrity.

In Justice K. S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) v. Union of India, the court recognized every individual’s right to control the portrayal of his life and image to the world and to control the commercial use of his/her identity. Further, in Titan Industries Ltd. V. M/S Ramkumar Jewellers, the court laid down two factors that should be considered regarding publicity rights:  

  1. Validity: The plaintiff has an enforceable right to a human being’s identity or persona.
  2. Identifiability: The Celebrity must be identifiable in the event of unlawful use by the defendant. Infringement of a celebrity’s right of publicity does not require proof of falsity, confusion, or deception, especially where the celebrity can be identified. 

Other jurisdictions have looked into the same issue, notably in respect to celebrity privacy, and concluded that “the media may report truthfully and still – at least on some occasions –may be found accountable for damages in publishing details of private concerns.

The Way Forward

In KKS v. Sarla Saraogi, The court referred to relevant cases and decided that celebrity rights ‘cannot be recognised without reference to the concept of  the right to privacy,’ and that they originate from Article 21’s right to privacy. The court also noted that whether commercial celebrity rights would survive or vanish after the death of the celebrity ‘requires a deeper probe’. While dismissing the suit, the Court suggested an alternative remedy to the plaintiff as stated above.


Guest Blogger

Prateek is a 4th-year law student studying BA LLB (Hons.) at the Institute of Law, Nirma University. He is interested in Trademark, Copyright and Media & Entertainment Laws.

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