Legal training for filmmakers & creators

My lord! Has he copied my play in his film? The R.G. Anand Judgment.

My lord! Has he copied my play in his film? The R.G. Anand Judgment.

Let me start with a question. How do you know that someone has infringed your copyright? The simplest way to identify an act of infringement is to compare the similarities between the two works. Now, does each kind of similarity between the two works amount to copyright infringement? The answer is no! You need to understand that you cannot claim copyright infringement merely based on generic and incidental similarities. However, you have to show substantial similarities to successfully claim copyright infringement against a person.

I know it is getting confusing. You may be puzzled between generic similarity and substantial similarity. Our honorable Supreme Court had well explained this issue in the landmark judgment of R.G Anand vs M/S. Delux Films & Ors, 1978. So, let’s not wait! I am analyzing this judgment for you.

The fact of the case:

This case has a very interesting factual background. The plaintiff was a play producer, writer, and dramatist. He wrote and produced several plays including Hum Hindustani (hereinafter referred to as ‘the play’). The Defendant was a film producer. He was interested in making a feature film based on the play. He approached the plaintiff with his interest. However, the parties could not work together.

Subsequently, the Plaintiff received the information that the Defendant is making a film titled ‘New Delhi’ (hereinafter referred to as ‘the film’) based on his play. Immediately, he wrote a letter to the defendant expressing his concern. However, the defendant assured him that the film does not resemble the play in any manner. The film has a different story, treatment, and characterization. Afterward, the film was released across the country. The plaintiff watched the film in a theater. He found several similarities between the film and the play. Therefore, he sued the defendant for copyright infringement.

The issue before the Court:

Whether the similarities between the film and the play amount to substantial similarities?

Whether the defendant has infringed the copyright of the plaintiff?

The basic principles innumerate by the Honorable Supreme Court

The Honorable Supreme Court has given several broad principles regarding the substantial similarities and generic similarities. The Court elaborated the following principles in the copyright infringement case by referring to several international authorities;

a) There can be no copyright in an idea, subject matter, themes, plots, or historical or legendary facts, and violation of the copyright in such cases is confined to the form, manner and arrangement, and expression of the idea by the author of the copyrighted work.

b) Where the same idea is being developed differently, it is manifest that the source being common, similarities are bound to occur. In such a case the courts should determine whether or not the similarities are on fundamental or substantial aspects of the mode of expression adopted in the copyrighted work. If the defendant’s work is nothing but a literal imitation of the copyrighted work with some variations here and there it would amount to a violation of the copyright. In other words, 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.

c) One of the surest and the safest test to determine whether or not there has been a violation of copyright is to see the reader, spectator or the viewer after having read or seen both the works are clearly of the opinion and gets an unmistakable impression that the subsequent work appears to be a copy of the original.

d) Where the theme is the same but is presented and treated differently so that the subsequent work becomes a completely new work, no question of violation of copyright arises.

e) Where however apart from the similarities appearing in the two works there are also material and broad dissimilarities which negative the intention to copy the original and the coincidences appearing in the two works are incidental no infringement of the copyright comes into existence.

f) As a violation of copyright amounts to an act of piracy it must be proved by clear and cogent evidence after applying the various tests laid down by the case law discussed above.

g) Where however the question is of the violation of the copyright of stage play by a film producer or a Director the task of the plaintiff becomes more difficult to prove piracy. It is manifest that unlike a stage play a film has a much broader perspective, a wider field, and a bigger background where the defendants can by introducing a variety of incidents give color and complexion different from how the copyrighted work has expressed the idea. Even so, if the viewer after seeing the film gets a totality of impression that the film is by and large a copy of the original play, violation of the copyright may be said to be proved.

After defining the above basic principles, the Honorable Court made a comparison between the story of the play and the story of the film and applied these principles.

The comparison between the Complainant’s play and Respondent’s film

The main theme of the play is the evil of provincialism and regional biased. The story of the play revolves around two families in the neighborhood. One is Punjabi and another is Madrasi family. Initially, they share a cordial relationship. Ammi is the son of the Madrasi family. Chander is the daughter of the Punjabi family. They fall in love. This event changes the equation of both families. Both parents are extremely reluctant to the marriage of their children. They want their children to get married in their community only. The parents of the girl even arrange her marriage to a boy from the Punjabi community. Consequently, the couple decides to commit suicide as they have no hope left before them to convince their respective parents. They write a letter in the name of their parents and leave the house to end their life. However, a common friend saves them and brings them home. In the meanwhile, parents realize their grave mistake. They happily arrange the marriage of the couple. They play ends at a happy note with a social message.

The film starts with a young Punjabi boy named Anand who comes to New Delhi to do a course in Radio Engineering. He does his house hunting nearby his institute. However, no landlord is ready to give him a house as he does not belong to their state. The Court observes that it is a very important aspect of the film that provincialism so deeply rooted that people are not even ready to give their house to the person not belonging to their state. This particular aspect is completely absent from the story of the play. His South Indian friend suggests him to attire as a South Indian and then go to any South Indian landlord to get the house. Accordingly, he gets a room in the house of Mr. Iyer. He befriends a girl named Janaki. She is the daughter of Mr. Iyer. They fall in love due to their common interest in music. He continues to pretend to be a South India boy. However, His true identity reveals when his father gets transfer in New Delhi. There is also another parallel love track between the second daughter of Mr. Iyer and a Bengal gentleman. The issue of dowry has also dealt with in detail. Ultimately, the film also ends at a happy note of the lead couples getting married.

The conclusion of the Court:

The Court compared the similarities and dissimilarities between two works. The Court observed that both works are based on the same similar idea of provincialism. Hence, few similarities are bound to happen. However, the effect of dissimilarities has outweighed the similarities. The Court found that the treatment of the film and the manner of its presentation on the screen is quite different from the one written by the plaintiff at the stage. The Court is satisfied that after seeing the play and the film no prudent person can get the impression that the film appears to be a copy of the original play. The Court further observed that authors of the film have been influenced to a degree by the salient features of the plot outlined in the play script. However, the story of the film travels beyond the plot delineated in the play. In the play, the theme of provincial parochialism is illustrated only in the opposition to a relationship by marriage between two families hailing from different parts of the country. In the film, the theme is also illustrated by the hostile attitude of proprietors of lodging accommodation towards prospective lodgers who do not belong to the same provincial community. The plot then extends to the evils of the dowry system, which is a theme independent of provincial parochialism. There are still other themes embraced within the plot of the film.

The Apex Court further held that when a court is analyzing the question of substantial similarities it has to address the questions like whether the dissimilarity between the work is immaterial features? The Court further held that;

“…. the question of whether the relevant part of the plot in the film is merely a colorable imitation of the essential structure of the stage play. If the treatment of the theme in the stage play has been made the basis of one of the themes in the film story and the essential structure of that treatment is clearly and distinctly identifiable in the film story, it is not necessary, it seems to me, for the Court to examine all the several themes embraced within the plot of the film to decide whether infringement has been established. In the attempt to show that he is not guilty of infringement of copyright, it is always possible for a person intending to take advantage of the intellectual effort and labors of another to so developing his product that it covers a wider field than the area included within the scope of the earlier product, and in the common area covered by the two productions to introduce changes to disguise the attempt at plagiarism.

Hence, the Court concludes that there shall be substantial similarities between two work in the following case;

“…the copyright belonging to an author can be readily infringed by making immaterial changes, introducing insubstantial differences and enlarging the scope of the original theme so that a veil of apparent dissimilarity is thrown around the work now produced. The court will look strictly at not only blatant examples of copying but also at reprehensible attempts at colorable imitation.”

Conclusion in the present case:

There are no substantial similarities between the film and the play. Hence both are two separate copyrightable work. Hence, the Respondents have not infringed on the copyright of the Complainant.

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