Litigation News

Bombay HC directs makers of web series 'Singardaan' to maintain an account of their revenue in copyright suit by writer Shamoil Ahmad Khan

Aditi Singh

Pursuant to a copyright infringement suit by Urdu writer, Shamoil Ahmad Khan, the Bombay High Court has directed makers of web series 'Singardaan' to maintain an account of their revenue. (Shamoil Ahmad Khan vs Falguni Shah & Ors)

While refusing to pass an order of interim injunction against the makers, the Court observed that a compensation in terms of an adequate remuneration or a share of such profits might be awarded to Khan in case of a decree in his favour.

The order was passed a single Judge Bench of Justice SC Gupte.

Shaoil Ahmand Khan (Plaintiff) informed the Court that in 1996, a collection of his short stories in Urdu titled 'Singardaan' was published by Mayar Publication, New Delhi. It was translated in Hindi by the Plaintiff himself and published in a collection of Hindi short stories by the same name.

The Plaintiff further said that the work was re-published in literary magazines, books, etc., translated in several other languages and even adapted in the form of a play.

It is the Plaintiff's case that the Defendants produced a web series under an identical title, i.e. Singardaan and launched it on an App named 'Ullu' and YouTube.

The Plaintiff asserted that the makers of the web series not only copied the title but also the entire plot, narrative and characters of his story by the same name.

The Plaintiff thus sought damages as well as injunctive reliefs in the suit.

The Defendants, on the other hand, stated that although the title is the same as that of Plaintiff's work, the web series was an entirely original story and creation and the premise, the story line, as well as the plot, in the two works were materially different.

The Defendants submitted that only the central idea i.e "a man taking away a dressing table, during the course of riots, from a brothel to his home, and its use leading to changes in the behaviour of the womenfolk at home" was similar.

However, an idea, by itself, could not be given any copyright protection, it was contended.

The Court stated that at the stage of interim relief, the Plaintiff has to only show that he has a case which is reasonably capable of succeeding and not that he is likely to be successful or more likely to be so than the Defendants.

In view of the submissions made by the parties, the Court observed that while there was no doubt that the Plaintiff had a copyright in the story 'Singardaan',

"The real question is what is meant by his copyright in the story – does he have a copyright in the plot or the story line or the characters of his story? And what about the central theme or the central idea? That is a much more difficult and complex question, and requires us to examine the content and contours of the well-known idea vs expression dichotomy, which is fundamental to the copyright doctrine formulated by courts."

Explaining the "notion of extraction” to arrive at a "line" above which everything is capable of copyright protection, the Court said,

If one goes on stripping the final work of these various elements (of theme, plot, final story, characters, settings), one may finally come to the bare idea or abstraction which no longer enjoys copyright protection. The task before the court is essentially to find out at what point such stripping lays bare the unprotectable idea.
Bombay High Court

The Court applied the same process of abstraction to the Plaintiff’s story and opined that the Plaintiff’s work in the theme, plot and storyline were not non-protectable ideas.

"Let us strip the work further and go 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 of the vanity box, or even the vanity box itself, the presence of wife, daughters of the protagonist. We may then possibly come to the extraction which may not be copyrightable.", it added.

After perusing the Defendant's work, the Court formed a prima facie opinion that the web series had all the essential elements of the Plaintiff’s theme, plot and story line.

"If one, who has read the Plaintiff’s story, sees the web series, from that point on, it very clearly appears to be an adaptation of the Plaintiff’s story.. It is but an actionable copy of the Plaintiff’s work.", the Court added.

At the stage of granting interim relief in the suit, the Court noted that the Defendants’ work was a completed work and had also been sufficiently published as the web series was released on the digital platform in January 2019.

"..the use is complete; and the damage done.", the Court said.

Considering the above and the fact that Plaintiff's concern was with regards the illegal adaption of his work with consent, the Court concluded that balance of convenience weighed in favour of the Defendants.

It opined,

"..this court is of the view that instead of granting a temporary injunction against exhibition of the web series, interests of justice would be served better if the suit itself is set down for trial and the Defendants are asked to maintain accounts of the profits made from the web series in the meantime, i.e. from the date of publication of the web series and till date and during the pendency of the suit and render them to the court as and when demanded in the course of the trial."
Bombay High Court

Observing that the Plaintiff may be compensated in case of a favourable decree, the Court ordered the Defendants to "keep and maintain an account of the revenues made from their web series by the name of 'Singardaan' from inception and till the disposal of the suit."

While expediting the hearing of the suit, the Court restrained the Defendants from making any further adaptation of the Plaintiff's work.

Plaintiff was represented by Advocates Rashmin Khandekar, Kavita Mundkur, Hemant Thadani i/b Krishna and Saurastri Associates LLP.

Advoactes Ashish Kamat, Ravindra Suryawanshi i/b Ravi Suryawanshi & Associates.

Read the Order:

Shamoil Ahmad Khan vs Falguni Shah & Ors.pdf
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