Intellectual Property Rights and the Big Screen

For understanding Intellectual Property Rights, we need to have an idea of what intellectual property is; Intellectual property (IP) refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce[1]. In most of the countries, there are four types of Intellectual properties- Copyrights, Trademarks, Patents and Trade Secrets. Copyrights which cover tangible objects such as Literary works, Scripts etc. Trademark protects the identity of the body/company who has a reputation in the market, and Patents protects a product or process.

The Indian Film Industry is one of the worlds largest film industries; it produces over 2000 films in a year in various languages. The Industry revenue is proliferating, but the intellectual framework and mechanism of our country are unable to match with its pace. Although, it may seem that IP is just an accessory to the Industry that is not the case. IP is majorly linked to the Film Industry; without IP, it is not possible to protect films from being duplicated and music from being used against the author’s consent. Mainly it protects the economic interests of the person who develops intellectual property required for the functioning of the Industry.

IP and CinemaCinema intersect in various areas, some of these are mentioned:[2]

  • Copyright
  • Funds procurement
  • Actor protection
  • Distribution deals
  • Trademarks and merchandising
  • Product placement
  • Technical innovation
  • Digital technologies

These aspects are field-specific and complex, they require detailed study. The World Intellectual Property Law Organization has briefed them in the following article-

Read more

This article mainly focuses on Copyright infringement by Bollywood films

Copyright (or author’s right) is a legal term used to describe the rights that creators have over their literary and artistic works. Works covered by copyright range from books, music, paintings, sculpture, and films, to computer programs, databases, advertisements, maps, and technical drawings[3]. For a creation to qualify as a dramatic work, it should be a work of action and capable of being performed[4]. The Indian Entertainment Industry includes Films, Television, Radio and live entertainment; this has been an upcoming industry and generates an enormous amount of revenue. There have been various instances of copyright infringement, one such being Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation v. Sohail Maklai Entertainment Pvt. Ltd.[5] In this case, the plaintiff had filed charges against the Indian Co. for copying the plot from the movie ‘Phone Booth’. The charges were proved, and the Indian Co. was penalized for it.

Copyright in India is governed under the Copyright Act of 1957[6] and the judgement delivered in R. G. Anand v. Delux Films[7] is the standard for deciding on matters related to copyright infringement. The Indian Copyright Act states that “copyright shall subsist throughout India in . . . original literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works.”[8] This enforced the concept that copyright protection is granted towards the expression of an idea, and is not the idea itself. One is free to use an idea and express it in their own way[9]. Thus, the way to judge if a movie is plagiarized in a broad sense is that if the same idea is presented in similar ways, which would lead a viewer to believe they are identical would lead to copyright violation.[10] Hence, the aspects of both the creator and the viewer are taken into account for deciding the matter.

Taking this scenario into consideration, two questions arise in our mind-

  1. Why is the work copied?
  2. Why are the violators not being sued?

The answer to the first one is relatively simple- For making a film, a lot of investment is needed, and therefore, there is a lot of risks involved. To avoid this risk, Bollywood directors and producer’s resort to copying their ideas and themes from the established Hollywood films. This reduces the risk substantially as the ideas have been already adored by other people around the world and hence, there is a sense of security that they would be a box office success in their Indian version too.[11]  A common criticism of Bollywood that is very prevalent is that it “borrows heavily” from its western counterpart, Hollywood.

It is crucial to have a better understanding of the issues mentioned above. Copied films have successfully accomplished an enormous amount of box office share and are loved by the fans as they have a cultural touch to it.[12] This leads to the success of the movie, which in return encourages Indian Directors to borrow their ideas from Hollywood classics and add an Indian cultural touch to it. This also helps in gaining popularity among and at the same time considered unique by an uninformed individual.[13]

The issue here is that there is a difference between taking inspiration and copying the films; the former refers to being inspired and using the idea portrayed by the film whereas copying is replicating the full movie with the same story but with other minor changes. The second issues are the discouragement to the writer by the Industry. If a writer tries to develop a novel scrip, repercussions might be faced by him as most films; competitors follow the same trends of Hollywood borrowing. The Industry ends up repeating the same process, and this coupled with poor pay and limited recognition given to screenwriters leads to lack of novelty. Even in cases where the scriptwriter manages to come up with a unique script, he does not get the appreciation as it is obviously less prestigious when compared to the Hollywood classics the other writers copy from.

Indian Cinema extends to television as well, it has not just been copying from films but also from books. In 2003 the famous fiction writer Barbara Taylor Bradford filed a copyright infringement case[14] against Sahara Television for making a television series ‘Karishma’ out of her book “A Woman of Substance”. Although, Bradford was not successful in her claim the case became a momentous as it was one of the few times the Indian Industry was sued for plagiarism

The answer to the second question is complicated. The number of films being described as copied and the number of cases filed against them shows a clearly that not enough films are being scrutinized.[15] The legality of the process is also evident. But the Indian IP industry is not well developed and does not have the capacity to litigate each and every copyright violation.

Further, a considerable number of films are not even released in Cinema; they are sometimes uploaded on unofficial websites from where the masses can access them. Another possible answer lies in the technicalities, like poor implementation, which isn’t a big issue for Hollywood yet.[16] Till very recently due to the internet, it was difficult for Hollywood executives to get to know of the rampant borrowing of ideas. This, however, will change over time when the net worth of Bollywood further increases and the Hollywood executives realize the loss caused to them.

For India to overcome the problem of copyright infringement, a reasonable amount of investment should be made in the Cinema IP sector by both government and private organizations.[17] International IP standards should be met by India and with the development of the new legal framework.[18] There should be stricter enforcement of the laws, and some administrative changes should also take place.

Separate Courts like the United States can also be considered a possibility in the near future. The current litigation process is also very costly as IP lawyers charge high fees; this can be done away with by helping more people to specialize in the field. There is a significant lack of knowledge among people, and they should be made aware of the consequences of violation of IP Rights.

To conclude, the developing film industry produces an immense number of films and music every year. The role of the IP sector should be given more importance, and investments need to be made to improve the present situation. IP is a boon to the Cinema Industry and is the best way to protect the interests of artists and investors. It is only a matter of time before Hollywood takes notice of this issue of copyright infringement and take recourse to international remedies. With Indian copyright laws being compliant with TRIPS (The International Intellectual Property Alliance)[19] one hopes that with these developments, the plight of copied films will be solved.


[1] World Intellectual Property Organisation, Intellectual Property Rights, (https://www.wipo.int/about-ip/en/)

[2] World Intellectual Property Organisation, From Script to Screen: What Role for Intellectual Property, (https://www.wipo.int/pressroom/en/stories/ip_and_film.html).

[3] World Intellectual Property Organisation, Copyrights (https://www.wipo.int/copyright/en).

[4], Lionel Bently and Brad Sherman, Intellectual Property Law, 2nd ed. 112-116.

[5] Fox Film Corporation v. Sohail Maklai Entertainment Pvt. Ltd, Suit No.2692 of 2010.

[6] The Indian Copyright Act, 1957.

[7] RG Anand v. Delux Films, AIR 1978 SC 1613.

[8] The Indian Copyright Act, 1957.

[9] as said in RG Anand v. Delux Films, AIR 1978 SC 1613.

[10] Juris Prime Law Services, India: Infringement of Copyright In Films, (https://www.mondaq.com/india/copyright/875744/infringement-of-copyright-in-films)

[11] Emory International Law Review, IS BOLLYWOOD UNLAWFULLY COPYING HOLLYWOOD? WHY? WHAT HAS BEEN DONE ABOUT IT? AND HOW CAN IT BE STOPPED? 

(https://law.emory.edu/eilr/content/volume-26/issue-1/comments/is-bollywood-unlawfully-copying-hollywood.html)

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Barbara Taylor Bradford vs Sahara Media Entertainment Ltd., 2004 (1) CHN 448.

[15] Arpan Banerjee, How Hollywood Can Sue Bollywood for Copyright Infringement and Save Indian Cinema, European Intellectual Property Review, Vol. 32, No. 10, 2010.

[16] Rachana Desai, Copyright Infringement in the Indian Film Industry, (www.jetlaw.org/wp-content/journal-pdfs/Desai-CopyrightInfringementintheIndianFilmIndustry.pdf)

[17] The Economic Times, Intellectual property rights: Create, consume, own, (https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/blogs/et-commentary/create-consume-own/)

[18] supra note 16.

[19] supra note 15.

Dishay Chitalia from The WB National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata

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