Some time back, the actor chanced upon the knowledge by way of a comment made in his blog that an imitation of his voice was being made to promote a brand of ‘gutka’ (a mixture of chewing tobacco, betel nuts and other things, which is considered addictive and harmful to health if indulged in for prolonged period of time), of all things! Doubtless to say, such an action did not take place with his due authorization. Mr. Bachhan, who is usually careful not to associate his name with any product/brand that is capable of attracting controversy, has understandably been irritated to a considerable extent by this event and is currently mulling obtaining protection to ensure his baritone remains unused, except other than with his consent. As he has said, “…[n]ot only is this unethical and wrong, it paints me in bad light as well…For someone who does not smoke or propagate smoking or any kind of intoxicant, by keeping away from endorsing such products, it is most disgusting to find someone conflagrating the law of the land and the law of ethics.”
He has also expressed his disapproval of unauthorized use of caricature images or any other aspect of a celebrity’s persona for commercial gain, stating that celebrities spend years of their lives and put in considerable hard work to build up their image/brand value and the same ought not be exploited commercially without due recognition and compensation being accorded to them. To prevent such occurrences, he has championed the cause of applying proper intellectual property protection to the world of celebrities and the entertainment industry, ruing the lack of awareness prevalent in the same.
The aspect of publicity rights or personality rights has been discussed in Spicy IP before this, with the opinion having been voiced that the Indian IP jurisprudence is not perhaps fully equipped yet to accord such protection at this point, at least to the extent as seems necessary. The concept of a celebrity having an economic stake in his personality rights has been recognized before in other jurisdictions, such as the matter of Haelen Laboratories v. Topps Chewing Gum or Julia Robert’s case against Russel Boyd. However, while the U.S. recognizes a so-called right of publicity to allow the use of one’s identity as an economic commodity, continental Europe’s legal tradition considers persona and business essentially incompatible, as has been opined by Daniel Birne in his ‘Celebrity Culture, Individuality and Right of Publicity as a European Legal Issue’ [IIC 2005, 36(5), 505-524].
In India, the occasions when the Bollywood actress Katrina Kaif or the South Indian superstar Rajnikanth has approached the court to protect celebrity rights and character merchandising rights respectively, a dearth of suitable Indian legislations have been revealed. Rajnikanth’s situation in particular resembles Mr. Bachhan’s predicament, since it dealt with preventing unauthorized imitation/duplication of the character portrayed by Rajnikanth for commercial purposes. Till date, the only solutions available in such cases in India have been piecemeal, with the aggrieved having to turn to laws relating to passing off, defamation or constitutional right to privacy so as to seek redress. One does hope, however, that this incident involving Mr. Bachhan (whose baritone can indeed perhaps be considered to be an integral part of his celebrity persona) is only the first of many that will shake the Indian entertainment industry and make the people involved pay more attention to the protection of their personality rights and therefore contribute towards development of the jurisprudence regarding the same.