Celebrities in India (particularly actors and film makers) have become extremely vigilant of their rights. There has been a considerable increase in the number of cases requesting for John Doe orders, recognition of celebrity rights and the number of trademark applications for the name of famous personalities have arisen. The Courts in many cases have recognized the concept of personality rights and have even decided cases when there has been unauthorized use of a personality’s name. However, a recent order passed by the Madras High Court went a step ahead. In a case filed by the super star of the Tamil Film Industry Rajnikanth against Varsha Productions, the Court granted an interim injunction against use of Rajnikanth’s name, image, caricature and even his style of delivering dialogues!

It was the contention of the plaintiff that the movie title suggested association with Rajnikanth and that it was likely to mislead the public into believing that he was connected or had approved the movie. The plaintiff also contended that the director of the movie in one of the press releases stated that the movie was a tribute to Rajnikanth and by doing so, caused the public to believe that the movie was in fact about Rajnikanth or associated to him.

The counsel for the defendant argued that the movie was not a biopic, that did not it have anything to do with Rajnikanth and that the movie titled so since the protagonist’s name in the movie Main Hoon Rajnikanth was Rajnikanth Rao. He argued that since it is a common name and names are not copyright protected, there was no use of the plaintiff’s name in particular. He also argued that the plaintiff had filed this suit on the basis of unreliable sources and apprehensions because they had not seen the movie.

Further, the defendant contended that personality rights have not been defined or recognised by any statute in India and that the suit should be dismissed on those grounds. Also, that the remedy available to the plaintiffs was under trademark law and Section 17 of the Copyright Act which states that the first owner of copyright, shall be the owner of the work.

The Court found merit in the arguments of the plaintiff and based on the findings of the Court, the point of law on the issue of personality rights can be summarised as follows:

  • There should be an enforceable right in the identity or persona of a human being.
  • The celebrity must be identifiable from defendant’s unauthorized use.
  • Infringement of right of publicity requires no proof of falsity, confusion, or deception, especially when the celebrity is identifiable.

The Court made references to other cases where the Courts have recognised personality rights and stated that in the present case, the celebrity can be easily identified and so the public would be misled to believing that the movie was either about Rajnikanth or was related to him. On this basis, the Court granted interim injunction to the plaintiff and restrained the defendants from using Rajnikanth’s name, image, caricature and style of delivering dialogues.

The Courts have protected personality rights with reference to images, names etc. but on the style of dialogue delivery is something that’s new. With reference to Rajnikanth, there are certain dialogues and the style in which he delivers them is constant to many of his films. That’s what makes this case a strong one! Going by the number of memes, gifs and Chuck Norris like jokes that I found during research, I’ve got to admit that Rajnikanth has something very unique and the Court definitely thought that it was something worth protecting even if it goes beyond the scope of protection.

This article has been authored by Nikita, an IP Law practitioner.