Copyright infringement and plagiarism on the big screen

By Shubneet Panjete, Lall Lahiri & Salhotra
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The concept of plagiarism – the “use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work”, according to the Random House dictionary – has recently been much discussed and subjected to legal scrutiny, especially in the context of the Indian entertainment industry. The makers of a Tamil film sued the producers of the record grossing film Ghajini for copyright infringement just days before the blockbuster’s release. Viewers of the Oscar-winning Hollywood thriller Memento (2000) know that Ghajini’s story was not screenwriter AR Murugadoss’s original work; in fact, the Tamil film was a remake of Memento.

Shubneet Panjete,Senior associate,Lall Lahiri & Salhotra
Shubneet Panjete
Senior associate
Lall Lahiri & Salhotra

With Bollywood being awarded industry status by the government in 1996 and allowed to access 100% foreign direct investment under the automatic route in 2002, the nation’s biggest film producer is increasingly opening up to foreign investment and collaboration. The marriage of Bollywood and Hollywood has almost inevitably seen a spotlight turned upon intellectual property rights (IPR). Film makers in the US now watch Indian movies not only for their delightful presentation of visuals spiced up with song and dance routines but also to look out for evidence of plagiarism – or as some in Bollywood would term it, inspiration. At the same time, there is a growing awareness of IPR in Bollywood, and increased efforts towards enforcement.

The best known case is probably the 2003 dispute between US-based author Barbara Taylor Bradford, who wrote the best selling book A Woman of Substance, and Bollywood’s Sahara Entertainment. Bradford filed a copyright infringement suit against Sahara’s Karishma – A Miracle of Destiny in Calcutta High Court. The case was decided in favour of the broadcasters on the grounds that while the rags-to-riches theme of Bradford’s book was present in the TV serial, mere ideas are not protected by Indian copyright law.

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Shubneet Panjete is an associate at Lall Lahiri & Salhotra.

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