Star India Private Limited v. Leo Burnett

– By Apoorva Mishra

The plaintiffs entered into an Agreement dated 9th April, 2000 with Balaji Telefilms Pvt. Ltd., in order to create, compose and produce 262 episodes of a television serial entitled “KYUNKI SAAS BHI KABHI BAHU THI”.  Since then Balaji has produced episodes of the serial and their services were engaged by way of contract of service and as such the plaintiffs are the first copyright owners under Section 17 of the Copyright Act. Balaji has devised the original artistic work depicting inter alia the logo and the title in a peculiar stylized font and containing as its essential features the words “KYUN KI SAAS BHI KABHI BAHU THI” and as per the agreement plaintiffs have become the owner of the said artistic work. The serial had acquired immense goodwill and reputation so much so that the public associate the said serial with plaintiffs and plaintiffs alone. Plaintiffs started endorsing the serial and the characters in form of products and services for a fee. In February 2002, the defendants came up with the commercial for a consumer product “TIDE DETERGENT” telecasting it with a title, “KYONKI BAHU BHI KABHI SAAS BANEGI” and characters of a grandmother, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, similar to the characters of J.D., Savita, Tulsi as in the serial of the plaintiff. The plaintiffs contended that there has been an infringement of copyright because an average viewer will have an impression that the plaintiffs are endorsing the defendant’s product and there is a connection between plaintiffs in the said serial and the defendants and their product. It is contended that the defendants are not entitled to do so without obtaining the prior consent and/or the permission from the plaintiffs and they have misrepresented the public at large and on account of this plaintiffs have suffered loss due to continuous act of infringement of copyright and passing off of the copy to the defendants.  The matter was brought before the Hon’ble Bombay High Court raising several issues:

First, Have the defendants by making the commercial film, violated and/or infringed the plaintiffs’ copyright in the T.V. serial “KYUN KI SAAS BHI KABHI BAHU THI”?

The court ruled that anything which is not a substantial copy of the film shall not be held liable for copyright infringement. Therefore, defendants by making the commercial film have not violated and/or infringed the plaintiffs’ copyright.

The court has rightly dealt with the above issue, for the second film to infringe the copyright of the first film it has to be the exact copy of that film which is not the case here. The plaintiff’s film is a work of 262 episodes whereas defendant’s advertisement is a work of 30 seconds in which only for 8 to 10 seconds the characters appear as a prelude to the tide detergent. The major and substantial part consists of tide detergent. Nothing is common between the two scripts. The defendants have put in their own independent skill and labour in making of the advertisement whole sole purpose is to promote the Tide detergent. The models are same in both the film. These models are professional and free to contract. There cannot be, therefore, any act which would amount to infringement by using the same models. Even if the idea is borrowed there, can be no copyright in the idea.

Second, Have the plaintiffs’ proved the defendants have infringed the plaintiffs’ artistic work?

The court denying the contentions of the plaintiffs coined the term Originality. Originality merely means effort expanded or that it involves skill, labour and judgment in its creation. Under Section 17 of the Copyright Act, the Author of a work is the owner of the copyright therein. The defendants have contended that the logo consisting of the two hands is a symbol in common use and in the public domain and open to anyone to use. The holding hands well known form of representing the handing over of something from one to another and are a commonly used symbol and they denied on the fact that the plaintiffs have put any skill, labour or some sort of judgement in its creation but has merely taken the lettering style from a source easily available in public domain. Hence, there is no originality, therefore no copyright.

Third, Have the plaintiff’s proved that the defendants are guilty of passing off their reputation and goodwill in the T.V. serial?

The court held that the defendants are not guilty of passing off as they do not satisfy the essentials of passing off per se. Plaintiffs’ serial is shown on Star Plus Channel which is not owned by the plaintiffs. Goodwill does not accrue to the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs have no goodwill or reputation. It is the case of the plaintiffs that their serial/film is associated exclusively with the Star Plus Channel by the public and public is well aware that it can be seen only on Star Plus. Also, the T.V. commercial will not cause any harm to the plaintiffs’ serial or their reputation because the field which the plaintiffs’ serial occupies as a film/soap opera is different from the field of defendants’ commercial that of an advertisement of detergent Tide. Even the activity area is also not in common, therefore there is no misrepresentation.

On the facts of this case, there is no fictional character involved like ‘Superman’, ‘Shaktiman’ Teletubbies’. In the serial there are ordinary people in common life who plays the role of some character or the other. At least from the material on record there is nothing special in any, of the characters of which it can be said that they have gained any public recognition for itself with an independent life outside the serial. This, the plaintiffs have failed to establish. It is also not a case of one film against another film and further the defendants are not merchandising any character from the serial by means of their T.V. commercial. There should be in actual character merchandising and not mere potential of character merchandising.

The court, after analysis the entire case, rightly pronounced the judgement in favour the defendants. The defendants are just promoting their consumer product “Tide” via a T.V. commercial which in no way is connected. The field of activity of the plaintiff and defendant are totally different. No likelihood of damage has been caused to the plaintiff. The characters of which the plaintiff claims to be copied are simple general roles of our Indian society and the defendants are simply targeting the audiences of India who will relate easily to these household roles and nothing special that the plaintiffs have done with these characters for which they claim a copyright on them. This isn’t a case of misrepresentation or fraud and no real damage has been caused. No prudent person will confuse the advertisement with plaintiffs’ serial. Moreover, for character merchandising the plaintiffs should prove that the public would look at the character and consider it to represent the plaintiffs or to consider the product in relation in which it is used as has been made with the plaintiffs’ approval. But the plaintiffs have failed to establish this. In my opinion, the defendants have rightly pleaded that they are a major consumer goods Company, well known in their own right and their products including Tide have their own reputation amongst the public; Tide will be associated with the defendants and not with the plaintiffs.

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