Delhi High Court Rules that Moral Rights Offer No Remedy for Destruction of a Work

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Does an architect, as the creator and legal ‘author’ of a building having artistic significance, have the right to object to the modification or destruction of their work by the owner of the building? A recent judgement of the Delhi High Court answers this firmly in the negative. In Raj Rewal v Union of India and Ors., Mr. Justice Endlaw has comprehensively rejected the claim that an author’s moral rights over a building take precedence over the rights of the building owner to destroy or modify the building. The judgement is significant in its contribution to the jurisprudence on the scope and limitations of ‘moral rights’ in Indian copyright law. We had previously published an analysis of this debate here.

Legal Context and Court’s Decision

The Hall of Nations building was designed by the architect Raj Rewal and structural designer Mahendra Raj. The building stood tall in the Pragati Maidan grounds in New Delhi as was widely hailed as an icon of modernist Indian architecture. In 2016, the Indian Trade Promotion Organisation proposed to destroy the Hall of Nations complex in order to build an ‘Integrated Exhibition-cum-Convention Centre’. After a few failed interventions by the plaintiff before administrative and judicial bodies, the complex was demolished. Subsequently, Raj Rewal instituted a suit in the Delhi High Court against the actions of the ITPO, claiming that the demolition had derogated the plaintiff’s ‘special rights’ under Section 57 of the Copyright Act, and prayed for a mandatory injunction to reinstate the building according to the original plans.

Section 57 of the Copyright Act provides authors with special rights to attribution and to integrity, generally known as ‘moral rights’, and subsist with the author of the work over and above the economic rights (all other copyrights), and regardless of assignment or transfer of such rights by the author (although to what degree authors may alienate their moral rights is unclear in the Indian context, see here for an interesting discussion on the subject).

The High Court rejected the plaintiff’s claims that his rights under Section 57 were abrogated by the destruction of his architectural work. The court framed the issue as a conflict of two distinct rights – the author/architect’s rights under Section 57, and the property or landowner’s rights to their property.

The court observed that, were the plaintiff in the present case allowed to prevent the destruction of the building by the defendant, it would amount to a restriction of the defendant’s right to deal freely with their property and land. Further, the court held that while the plaintiff’s rights in the work were purely statutory rights circumscribed by the Copyright Act, the right to property was a constitutional right under Article 300A, which must prevail over statutory rights, observing that “when the Constitution in Article 300-A mandates that no person shall be deprived of his property save by authority of law, no law unless expressly providing for deprivation of property can, by implication be interpreted as depriving a person of his property.”

The court further held that the author’s rights to prevent ‘distortion, mutilation or modification’ of their work under Section 57 did not permit an author to prevent the destruction of a work in its entirety, since “that what cannot be viewed, seen, heard or felt, cannot be imperfect and cannot affect the honour or reputation of the author.” Therefore, the architect’s rights are restricted to the right to prevent the building owner from making changes to the building and proclaiming that the architect is the author of the modified building. To support its position, the court also relied upon Section 52(1)(x), which provides as an exception to copyright – “the reconstruction of a building or structure in accordance with the architectural drawings or plans by reference to which the building or structure was originally constructed”. The court reasoned that the ‘reconstruction’ contemplated under Section 52(1)(x) could only occur if the building or structure had been previously demolished. Observing that the Copyright Act must be harmoniously read, the court therefore stated that Section 57 could not possibly contemplate the right to object to the destruction of a building.

The court therefore dismissed the suit on the grounds that the plaintiff had no cause of action against the demolition of the Hall of Nations.

The End of Integrity? What Remains of Moral Rights for Artistic Works in India?

The Delhi High Court’s decision in Raj Rewal v UoI is quite significant, particularly in the development of moral rights jurisprudence in India, which has only been sparsely deliberated upon by courts. However, in my opinion, while the court ultimately comes to the correct conclusion, particularly in denying the relief of mandatory injunction to reinstate the building, the decision muddies the waters of moral rights under Section 57.

To begin with, the Court did not engage with Section 57 jurisprudence in India, particularly the landmark case of Amar Nath Sehgal v Union of India, wherein a coordinate bench of the same court had held, in direct contrast to the present judgement, that –

“There would therefore be urgent need to interpret Section 57 of the Copyright Act, 1957 in its wider amplitude to include destruction of a work of art, being the extreme form of mutilation, since by reducing the volume of the authors creative corpus it affects his reputation prejudicially as being actionable under said section. Further, in relation to the work of an author, subject to the work attaining the status of a modern national treasure, the right would include an action to protect the integrity of the work in relation to the cultural heritage of the nation.”

The decisions in Raj Rewal and Amar Nath Sehgal are a study in contrasts. In Raj Rewal the court held in broad terms that the destruction of a work does not constitute a violation of the rights under Section 57, and also restricted the scope of moral rights to those expressly codified under the Copyright Act, a diametrically opposite position from that taken by the same court in Amar Nath Sehgal, which leant heavily on international conventions on the preservation of cultural heritage to interpret Section 57.

One way to reconcile this conflict could be to read Raj Rewal restrictively in the context of only architectural works and the factual matrix of the case. However, even in this context, the decision is highly restrictive to the rights of architects contemplated under Section 57, as it holds that ‘urban planning’, as well as technical or economic reasons for modifying a building will outweigh any countervailing claim that the architect of a building may have for the preservation of its artistic integrity. This effectively restricts an architect or designer’s remedies under Section 57 to the right to disclaim authorship of the modified building.

Ultimately, the decision signals the need to have clearer statutory rules on the scope of moral rights in architectural works in particular, but also in artistic works generally. Perhaps such dilemmas could be avoided if the legislature adopts a rule similar to that in Australia (Copyright Regulation 195AT(3A)), where building owners must in good faith consult with the architect or author of a work prior to its modification or demolition. Further, in the particular context of preservation of historical and cultural heritage, perhaps the remedy does not even lie in the field of copyright law, which typically relies upon private action. Until such legislative change, however, it appears that architects and authors are in a precarious position for protecting the integrity of their works.



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