Hello storytellers! Welcome to the first article of my blog. In this article, we are going to explore the famous 'idea vs expression dichotomy’ under Copyright law. We shall refer to a recent judgment of Honorable Bombay High Court in the case of Shamoil Ahmad Khan vs Falguni Shah & Ors, 2019 (famously known as singaardan judgment). However, before we analyze this, I have a few interesting questions for you.
Have you ever thought that what does it mean when we say that a person has copyright over the story s/he has written? Does s/he have a copyright in the plot or the storyline or the characters of the story? Further, we know that Copyright law does not protect ideas but an expression. So, can a person copy your idea and create her work based on the same? How shall you know that s/he has copied just the central idea and not the expression? Practically these are complex questions. We need to understand the fundamental doctrine of 'idea vs expression dichotomy' to get the answers.
Several courts have explained this dichotomy through a plethora of judgments. However, the recent Singaardan judgment of Bombay High Court has caught many eyeballs. In this case, the Honorable Bombay High Court (hereinafter Court) has elaborately described this dichotomy. The Court has explained how can we practically apply the same to differentiate between the protectable and non-protectable elements of a story. There were several questions concerning this judgment among the storytellers. Has this judgment expanded the scope of the protection of a story under copyright law? Does this judgment bring theme/plot/storyline also under the scope of protection? Let me decode this judgment for you in the simplest term. I hope the same shall address these queries.
The Plaintiff wrote and published a story named Singaardan. The protagonist of his story is a Hindu man. He steals the ancestral ‘Singardaan’ (makeup box) of a Muslim prostitute during a riot and brings the same to his house from the brothel. The presence of this Singardaan leads to adverse influence on the behavior of his wife and daughters along with a negative transformation in their appearance. The unique feature of this off-beat story is that a lifeless object such as ‘Singardaan’ influences human lives by the various human vibrations and vibes absorbed by it over several generations of its use.
The Plaintiff sued the Respondent that he has infringed his copyright by adapting his story into a web series with the same-titled. As per the Plaintiff, the Respondent has copied the entire plot, narrative, and characters of his story in his web series. The Defendant denied the claim of the Plaintiff. The defendant argued that he has just taken inspiration from the central idea of the Plaintiff’s story and created his own original story.
In Respondent's web series, the Protagonist is a Hindu man. He is engaged in an extramarital affair with a Muslim Prostitute. During a riot in the city, the prostitute dies. Devastated by her death, he keeps her ancestral singardaan as her last memory. He brings the same to his house. From that day onward, he observes a sudden change in the behavior of his wife and daughter. They both start behaving like prostitutes due to the influence of the presence of Singaardan in the house.
The Defendant argues that save and except the central idea, namely, a man taking away a dressing table, during a riot, from a brothel to his home, and its use leading to changes in the behavior of the womenfolk at home, which idea, by itself, is not entitled to any copyright protection; besides this idea, there is no similarity between the two works of art.
Whether the copied part of the plaintiff work is merely an unprotected idea? Or, whether the Defendant has infringed the copyright of the Plaintiff by copying his expression?
3. Analysis of the Court
The idea-expression dichotomy is theoretically comprehensible. However, it is difficult to apply the distinction in practice. It is because every idea, when communicated, is expressed in words or form. Hence, it is impossible to conceive of an idea without such expression. Yet courts have to distinguish between the two for determining what is protected by copyright and what is not. The courts have to perform the meticulous task of finding out at what point plagiarist ceases to copy an author’s ideas and steals his expression. There have been several ways to identify the distinction between the two. However, the extraction is the best approach regarding the same. In this judgment, the Court applied the extraction process in the following ways;
(i) A germ of an idea is developed into a theme and then into a plot and then the final story with the help of characters and settings. The combination of all these elements gives the substance to the final work. In the extraction process, we have to strip the final work and remove all the protectable elements. On continuously stripping the final work of these elements, one may come to the bare idea or abstraction which no longer enjoys copyright protection. Hence, the task before the court is to find out at what point such stripping lays bare the unprotectable idea.
(ii) The individual court has to decide where to stop or draw a line in this “series of abstractions” by applying its judicious mind on case to case basis. Everything above this line is a matter of expression capable of copyright protection and everything below unprotectable. The Court applied this approach in the present case as below;
(a) First of all, we strip the story of its embellishments, its description of the mood, the motivations, and the tribulations of its characters and their actual actions. We get the theme, plot, and storyline. Both stories have a similar theme, plot, and storyline. In both stories, a Hindu man takes the ancestral makeup box of a Muslim prostitute in the backdrop of a riot. He brings that makeup box to his house from a brothel. The presence of the makeup box has resulted in a sudden behavioral change in the wife and the daughter/s of the man in both the stories. They start behaving like prostitutes. Hence, the Court observes;
“… The theme, plot, and storyline is the life and blood of work. If someone steals this theme, plot, and storyline, is he not thereby plagiarism the expression of the Plaintiff’s work? Can the above theme, plot, and storyline be simply dismissed as non-protectable ideas of the Plaintiff’s work and not its expression? I think not. We have not yet reached that level of extraction where the work can be said to be stripped to its non-protectable idea.”
(b) Then we strip the work further and went to the next level of abstraction. “We may strip off the characters of their religious or professional identities, the setting of a riot, the act of taking away the vanity box, or even the vanity box itself, the presence of the wife, daughters of the protagonist. We may then possibly come to the extraction which may not be copyrightable. We may, for example, then come to an idea that a thing or artifact belonging to someone brings out in its user, by its use, a change in appearance or behavior in line with the one to whom the thing or artifact originally belonged. This can certainly be described as a non-protectable idea. If someone were to write a story or make a play or other adaptation of this idea by using a different setting, different characters, a different theme, plot, or storyline, surely no charge of actionable plagiarism can be laid at his door.”
The Court held that the theme, plot, or storyline of the story of the plaintiff cannot be described as a mere idea. It is detailed enough to be called as an expression of an idea.
The judgment has held that a detailed theme/storyline/plot that captivates the essence of a story is protectable. In the present case, the Defendant has copied the unique details of the Plaintiff's work. He made changes in the presentation of his web series. However, the soul and essence of both stories are the same. Hence, the Court applying the extraction process held that the Defendant has infringed the Copyright of the Plaintiff.
However, we need to note that this judgment cannot be used as a precedent to seek protection for a generic theme. We need to understand that a generic theme/plot devoid of specific and unique details cannot be protected.