Hollywood v. Bollywood v. Tollywood: When is ‘plagarsim’ equal to ‘copyright infringement’?

The last few weeks have been witness to two high profile disputes between Hollywood and Bollywood on one hand and Bollywood and Tollywood (The Bengali movie industry) on the other hand.

It has been recently reported that BR Films has agreed to pay 20th Century Fox a sum of $ 200,000 dollars as compensation, in an out of court settlement, for remaking My Cousin Vinny in Hindi under the title Banda Yeh Bindaas Hai (This Guy is Fearless). As reported by this blog, way back in 2007, BR Films was in negotiation with 20th Century Fox to secure the Hindi remake rights of My Counsin Vinny. In fact our previous post even quotes Ravi Chopra of BR Films confirming that the deal had been concluded. There are currently no details available as to the nature of the law suit filed by 20th Century Fox against BR Films but I’m guessing that it was in regards a contractual dispute rather than a suit for copyright infringement. The BBC quoted Fox as saying “Discussions had taken place between the two parties [in 2007]. However, 20th Century Fox contended that no terms were agreed between them, whereas BR Films contended to the contrary.”

It is rather surprising that Fox has sought to give this dispute such wide media coverage and embarrass BR Films, which has rather unfortunately come across as the bad guy in this dispute despite it being one of the rare, possibly the only, Bollywood production house to actually approach a Hollywood for remake rights. Any future Bollywood producer will think twice before he or she wants to go down this path again especially since remakes in the Indian context will hardly qualify as copyright infringement.

In other news the producers of Bollywood block-buster – Namaste London (Youtube link)– have obtained a stay on release of the producers of Bengali film – Poran Jay Joliya Re (Youtube link) – on the grounds of ‘plagiarism’. The lawyers for the plaintiffs have alleged that the Bengali movie has copied not only the story line but has also lifted frames, costumes etc. The Calcutta High Court has stayed the screening of the movie until it has viewed both movies. The question of copyright infringement has been covered by this blog several times over here and here. Everytime we have come to the same conclusion – a Hollywood movie remade in Bollywood is most unlikely to constitute copyright infringement since copyright law protects only an expression of an idea and not the idea itself. Any Bollywood movie is required to firstly have a song and dance number and secondly the cultural backdrop of the movie in India is bound to be different from the Hollywood movie shot in the west. The expression of the same idea in a Bollywood movie will therefore necessarily be different from the Hollywood movie.

It is important to understand that the most important distinction in copyright law is between idea and expression. Boy likes girl and girl gets married to third party is an idea which has been the basic plot in countless movies. Take Bollywood for example – we have thousands of movies with the same old rotten love triangle yet atleast half of those movies narrate the plot in their own unique style. It is only when the expression itself is copied that the requirements of copyright infringement are fulfilled. To their credit of most of the alleged Bollywood copycats, they, wittingly or unwittingly, rehash the same old plots in new forms on the big screen. It would therefore be incredibly difficult to successfully sue any of them for copyright infringement. While this may sound unfair to many artists out there the truth of the matter is that copyright protection is a weak protection and should remain so as the business of art depends on some healthy borrowing from the past.

Prashant Reddy

T. Prashant Reddy graduated from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, with a B.A.LLB (Hons.) degree in 2008. He later graduated with a LLM degree (Law, Science & Technology) from the Stanford Law School in 2013. Prashant has worked with law firms in Delhi and in academia in India and Singapore. He is also co-author of the book Create, Copy, Disrupt: India's Intellectual Property Dilemmas (OUP).


  1. Divs

    Hey Prashant,

    Agree on quite a few things.. and doubtful of my view on some..

    BR Films in bad light inspite of being one of the Very very few to have attempted to negotiate for rights… is indeed sad. I guess it is a deterrant to many production houses that may wanna adapt movies.

    As far as the Hindi-bengali movie clash is considered.. i guess the Court’s opinion would clarify things.. and i suppose to avoid such conflict do smart movie makers like Priyadarshan, themselves remake their movies in diff languages.. (There are many movies ive seen in Malayalam/tamil/telugu and Hindi.. i guess some ppl may agree with me!)

    One question that crosses my mind.. we have media houses in India.. (Siddharth Basu and Niret Alva’s being most prominent) that have successfully bought adaptation rights for various foreign media houses 4 Game shows and hosted them for years on Indian television.. Then why are movies not foll the same/similar practice??? I wonder if there are ne perspectives am missing or am blissfully unaware of!!!Ne take??


  2. Anonymous

    In this connection, regarding what copyright should protect, Sham Balganesh’s article in a recent Harvard Law Review issue makes for interesting reading. Incidentally, Sham, a 2003 NLSIU graduate, is perhaps the youngest scholar to have published in the Harv. L. Rev.

  3. Anonymous

    In response to Divs’ post, I have also noticed that Indian TV houses are quite particular about licensing shows from abroad, especially game/reality shows. Of course, this may also be to piggyback on the popularity of foreign shows that are already well known in India, like American Idol, but I was wondering if it also has something to do with formats…is it the case that since game shows stick to rigid formats, copying a game show is more likely to be an infringing act than copying a movie? I remember a New Zealand case on this point from law school.

    – Chaitanya

  4. Divs

    Dear Chaitanya,

    I guess u may b right. Game shows being format and rule based may perhaps involve lesser trouble vis-a-vis a licensing sort of arrangement.

    But coming to think of it, indian movies that are rip-offs usually draw in the whole of the original script and add on.. in terms of running around the trees, the alps, boy-meets-girl song sequence, item no. and so on. so, the basic plot is usually intact.. but ya all this may/maynot lead to the violation of the moral rights of the script writer/producer.. watsay??? Or am I grossly missing smthing?

  5. Prashant Reddy

    Hello – Sorry for the late reply.

    Shyam Balganesh was and is a legend in NLS. He is in fact the youngest scholar to get an article published in HLS Review. I’m yet to read it.

    I think Chaitanya has given the right answer to you query Divs. Game shows follow extremely rigid format. I think the sets and the format of KBC and ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ are almost identical.



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