On 29th September, 2014, Justice Endlaw of the Delhi High Court dismissed a suit by a media house purporting copyright infringement on its database of users, as the database was “nothing but a collection of e-mail addresses” and therefore “[t]he plaintiff cannot be said to be the author or composer or having any contribution in the same”. Read the decision here.
The plaintiff is a publication house in the field of Information Technology, running a print media publication and an online news portal dedicated to IT. Over the course of running the media publication and website, it had collected a database of customers and their contact details, as well as “entities which could be targeted for subscription” later. The plaintiffs contended that the database also contained details of comments made by visitors, including IP addresses, etc.
The plaintiff claimed that this collection of data amounted to an original expression of thoughts of the plaintiff and preparing the database involved “immense original skill, thought process [and] imagination”.
The defendant was a former Management Executive at the Plaintiff company, and had been given access to the database as part of the defendant’s job. The Plaintiff filed the present suit when they found that the defendant had started their own news website offering similar services, at a lower price.
The basis of the plaintiff’s claim was S.2(0) of the Copyright Act, which includes databases within the definition of “literary work”.
The Court held that the plaint did not disclose how the database in question could be afforded copyright protection, as “the said databases are nothing but a collection of the e-mail addresses of the visitors to the website/news portal of the plaintiff.” The Court referred to the landmark decision of the Supreme Court in Eastern Book Company v. D.B. Modak (2008) where it was held that for a compilation of data to be protected by copyright, it must be demonstrated not only that the creator exercised labour and capital, but also skill and judgment such that it is not a mechanical exercise.
This appeared to be a suit filed by the Plaintiff company to “punish” the former employee who had started an enterprise that rivalled that of the plaintiff. The Court commented on how the Copyright Act is often being misused by employers to harass employees who have quit employment. This is especially evidenced by the fact that such suits are usually only pressed till interim stage (when the opposite party is sufficiently “scared”) and are abandoned thereon.
Justice Endlaw strongly cautioned against such a practice and said that the Courts are doing a disservice if they do not take cognizance of such a development. The Learned Judge held that such suits must not be put through trial itself as it would be a waste of resources. Therefore, though the Suit was at the stage of framing issues, the Court dismissed it against the plaintiff as the plaintiff “had not pleaded the material propositions of fact essential to succeed in an action of infringement of copyright”.
It must be noted that the law relating to copyrightability of databases has changed substantially since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Eastern Book House (supra). Prior to this, the Indian Courts used to follow the “sweat of the brow” doctrine (such as in the Burlington case) wherein any compilation of data involving time, labour and/or money would amount to a literary work. However, the Eastern Book House case expressly raised the threshold to the level of ‘modicum of creativity’ (to borrow the terminology used in the seminal US Supreme Court decision Feist Publications). However this does not absolve litigants from pressing suits against former employees for copyright infringement over databases, as the Eastern Book House decision is around 7 years old now. The strict action taken by the Delhi High Court will hopefully deter such lawsuits in the future.