A movie has different elements that make it what it is. You have the story line (which is understood through the dialogues and the script), the sound tracks that enhance the movie experience as a whole, the costumes and the choices of location, and of course the acting. Therefore, a great deal of effort from many different persons makes a good movie. The question that often arises is, does the movie as a whole receive intellectual protection or can its constituent parts also be protected? Who owns the copyright of a movie? The writers, singers, composers, directors, producers and actors are just a few of the stakeholders in every movie.

This was the contentious question that surrounded the release of the Movie “Zanjeer” (which was supposed to be released on 6 September 2013). The answer to the question came in the form of a Bombay High Court decision given on 2nd September 2013. The movie as it was originally made involved the collaborative efforts of the late Prakash Mehra, Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan.

The Factual Matrices:

The case involved primarily a decision on the facts more than the law, though the law was clarified in the process. Both parties brought up very contrary factual circumstances and the Court’s main time was spent in ascertaining the truth.

Prakash Mehra’s sons (here the Defendants) wanted to remake the movie and the famed duo Salim – Javed (here the Plaintiffs) believed they were the rightful owners of the movie. This is where the case took an interesting turn. There was a clear difference in the facts submitted by both sides. The Plaintiffs asserted that when Prakash Mehra came to them asking if they had a “fresh script” they presented him with a script they had already written. Their case was that it was a contract for service. This, legally speaking, would mean that they were the rightful owners of the movie. The Defendants on the other hand, alleged that the script written by the Plaintiffs was written solely on the behest of their father, Prakash Mehra. They stated that Prakash Mehra had purchased the script from Mr. Dharmendra, and had paid Rs. 4000/- for the script.

They proved this point (the Court eventually accepted the evidence given by them) by producing the accountant, a Mr. Ningoo, who affirmed that he had been asked by Prakash Mehra to transfer the entry of Rs. 4000/- from Dharmendra’s ledger account in the books of Prakash Mehra Productions into the “Story and Screenplay” ledger account for the film “Zanjeer” as the said story was sold by Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar to Shri Dharmendra who had liked it after hearing the story and had purchased it from them for a token amount of Rs. 4,000/-. The accountant further stated that he accordingly transferred the said amount of Rs. 4,000/- from Dharmendra’s ledger account to the “Story and Screenplay” ledger account of the film “Zanjeer” along with other payments.

The Court analyzed several interviews of Prakash Mehra and Salim Khan, which after being examined led the court to find clear testimonies that the script had been bought by Dharmendra and then subsequently by Prakash Mehra from Salim Khan. Therefore it was not a case of mere licensing.

The Final Decision:

The question of first ownership of copyright in literary and musical works, which are incorporated in a cinematographic film, was looked into. The Court held that once a literary and/or musical work was incorporated in a film, the producer of the film becomes the first owner of the copyright in such literary and/or musical works, unless there is a contract to the contrary between the authors of such works and the producer of the film. This goes according to Section 17 of the Copyright Act, whereby the producer of the work is the first owner of the copyright in the underlying work and not the author of the underlying work. The Court determined that Prakash Mehra had in fact commissioned the work from the Plaintiffs for a consideration of Rs. 55, 000 each and was therefore the first owner of the underlying works of the film, which included the literary work. Consequently, this meant that the Plaintiffs were not entitled to any relief.

Analyzing the Decision:

Like an Aesop Fable, the story here has an ending with a moral. When there are so many multiple stakeholders involved in a particular project, a great deal of loss and confusion can arise if there is nothing to guide the manner in which the collaboration happens. Each person’s contribution to the ultimate finished work is vital and therefore attempts to reward and protect their efforts are important. This means that there should be a clear legally binding document that guides the project; namely a contract. There should be contracts drawn up that clearly define the right and duties and liabilities of every person involved in the project. The terms of contract between every stakeholder in such enormous endeavors are vital in order to prevent such disagreements as to who has rights over which element in the movie.

It is common practice now to have contracts that state that say a song sung for a movie will either belong to the Producer or the Singer. This clear definition is necessary in order to avoid confusion and conflicts. So the moral of the Zanjeer Story: draw up contracts that define the entire project to spell out the position of every copyright-able element in the movie to avoid future difficulties.

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Raja Selvam

Founder & Managing Attorney, Selvam & Selvam | Practice areas include Trademarks, Patents, Domain names & Business law. Visiting faculty, Department of Journalism, Madras University where I teach copyrights & trademarks law. Passionate about entrepreneurship, start-ups, stocks, farming, technology and law.