Potter-troubles over for Puja organisers

The Delhi High Court has dismissed a petition by J K Rowling and Warner Brothers against a Durga Puja pandal in Kolkata’s Salt Lake area allegedly replicating Hogwarts Castle. In a brief order, the court refused to restrain the Durga Puja committee from using the statues and images of Harry Potter characters during the festival, TOI reports.

Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, however, made it clear that the court’s order would be applicable till October 26, saying, “any (further) use of these characters will be subject to the prior permission of the author of Harry Potter series, J K Rowling.”

The court also directed the puja committee to file an undertaking stating that they would not use any character from the book without permission in future.

The pandal had run into rough weather with Rowling and Warner Bros who sued the festival organisers for breach of copyright. The author and the publishing house, who own the rights to the Harry Potter series in India, had sought damages of Rs 20 lakh in the 394-page petition filed in the Delhi High Court.

According to IE, Rowling and WB had sought an injunction and monetary compensation against the organiser for “clear violation” of her intellectual property rights over her characters.

The court’s decision came after the pooja organiser gave a written undertaking before the Bench that they would in future use the subjects and symbols of her stories only after receiving her prior explicit permission.

Allowing the organisers to use Potter replicas till October 26 – the last day of the festivities – Justice Kaul ordered the “defendants (organisers) in future to model their pandals on any of the subject matter only with the leave and liberty of the plaintiff (Rowling)”.

Refusing to impose compensation, the court termed the organiser’s use of Potter characters in Durga festival as a “non-profit making enterprise” without any aim to derive financial mileage.

Earlier, Warner Brothers in a statement quoted in the Telegraph had said:

“Sadly, the organisers of this large-scale commercially sponsored event did not approach us for permission to go ahead,” the company said in a statement issued in London.

“This event falls outside the guidelines set up by Warner Bros., J.K. Rowling and her publishers to help charitable and not-for-profit organisations to run small-scale themed events that protect fans and allow everyone to enjoy Harry Potter books, films and events in the spirit in which they were created,” it added.

The 96-foot-high pandal, decorated with props from the Potter saga including his magic broom, the Hogwarts Express, hanging candles, and of course, giant images of Potter and his coterie, has already cost the organizers Rs 8 lakh thus far, TOI reports.

The court effectively made the injunction in favour of Warner Bros, but allowed the organisers to keep the pandal structure standing until the duration of the festival. The pandals are usually pulled down once the festival is over, and this ruling would not affect the celebrations during the Durga Puja.

As Warner Bros. have pointed out in a statement to IANS:

“…The injunction was made in our favour, but the court decided that there was insufficient time for the Harry Potter elements of this particular event to be amended or withdrawn. We are pleased that the court has recognised that such events cannot proceed without Warner Bros’ permission which should have been obtained.”

About Justice Sanjay Kaul’s rejection of Warner Brother’s claim for compensation – on the grounds that a claim could not be made on a public purpose such as a puja – the statement issued in London said: “Court requirements in India meant that minimum damages initially had to be claimed, but we expressly waived these in the court hearing.”

Regardless of having won the right to keep the pandal standing for the festival, and the principled victory of WB in re protecting the Harry Potter copyright, the puja organizers have raised concerns about the right to reconstruct/recreate certain kinds of structures. When Titanic-fever was raging some years ago, the sinking ship was replicated as well. By the argument put forward by Rowling and Co, perhaps even James Cameron and crew could have tried to similarly sue puja organizers.

Having done a bit of pandal hopping myself over the past several years, I have always been fascinated by the skill of the artisans to reproduce life-size structures of things both sacred and profane: the Dakhineshwar Kali Temple, the Titanic, the Taj Mahal… The contention that the committee organizers intended to use this (the Hogwarts Castle and Harry Potter replicas) for commercial use seems hard to digest. I don’t want to pass judgement on the choice of the pandal theme, which might descend into an evaluation of appropriate depictions of religious sentiment. But I do not see much difference between costume contests and yard decorations and themed parties during Halloween in other parts of the world and puja pandals here.

The IANS report, quoted above, suggests that

Warner is thought to have been informed by its legal advisers in India that this was a commercially organised event which was selling 40 to 50 stalls at a cost of $600 each and banner advertisements at a cost of $250 each to local and internationally recognised companies.

Perhaps this is a naïve defence of the festival season, but the purpose of selling these stalls is to fund the organisation of the puja itself. As I understand it, the sarbojanin, or community, puja celebrations is where representatives of a locality or a neighbourhood get together, collect funds from the members of the locality, which are then pooled in to arrange for the construction of the pandal marquee, the idol of Durga, and the payment for carrying out the many religious ceremonies that take place during the festival. Increasingly corporate sponsorships of pujas and puja pandals have become popular, and some would argue (and I would tend to agree) that the religiosity of the puja is taking a backseat nowadays, but it is there nevertheless. Certainly, the Durga Puja festival is today more carnivalesque than anything else, but its underlying mandate remains a not-for-profit religious and socio-cultural event. To me, this is made apparent by the fact that anyone is allowed to enter a pandal, anyone is allowed to attend the religious ceremonies, anyone is allowed to partake of the religious offerings; and all of this without any payment.

If the event was objected against on grounds of not being ‘small-scale’ (see Warners Bros statement, as quoted here), the contenders would have to defend what they term as ‘small-scale’ and ‘large-scale’ in a country such as India, where size often takes on a whole new meaning. For example, conservative estimates suggest that in Kolkata alone, there are over ten thousand pandals organized simultaneously during this festival. In a city with an estimated population of 4.5 million, where a significant portion of residents visit several pandals every day during the festival, arguments of scale will be very difficult to justify.


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2 thoughts on “Potter-troubles over for Puja organisers”

  1. lets not forget the most important aspect of this whole thing-the puja pandal!! for gods sake, the puja organisers where not trying to mint money for so called commercial purposes by imitating the characters whose copyright is well deservedly held by rowling and warner bros. But lets thank rowling for the fact that she made this pandal really famous(unintentionally though) and i should presume that it would induce many more visitors from far corners of kolkata and beyond, to visit maa kali in this saltlake panadl and also explore the whole copyright debate therein. This also makes up for ‘adda’ talk!!

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