Delhi High Court clears the air around Copyright of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Nayak’

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In another landmark development concerning the right of authors of underlying work, the Delhi High Court on May 23 in RDB and Co. HUF v. HarperCollins Publishers India Pvt. Ltd. held that the screenplay of the Bengali film Nayak was ‘entirely the work of Satyajit Ray’ and that the right to novelise the screenplay of the same would vest in him. By extension, and upon his demise, this right vests with his son Sandip Ray, along with the Society for Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives (“SPSRA”), of which his son is a member.

The Controversy around the Ownership

Upon being commissioned by the film’s producer, R. D. Bansal, film maestro Satyajit Ray wrote the screenplay and directed the film ‘Nayak’ which was released in 1966. Around 50 years later, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay novelised its original screenplay, which was published on 5th May 2018 by HarperCollins Publishers India Pvt. Ltd. (defendant). The plaintiff, RDB and Co. Hindu Undivided Family, whose Karta was R. D Bansal, alleged that the novelization of the screenplay and the publication of the novel is in violation of the plaintiff’s copyright as per Section 51 of the Copyright Act. The plaintiff asserted that the copyright in the film, as well as all indirect, derivative and related rights associated with the film, are vested in the plaintiff and sought a decree for permanent injunction restraining the defendant from publishing and distributing the novel. On the flip side, the defendant, which has obtained a license to novelise the screenplay of the film, contested the plaintiff’s claims and argued that as per Section 17 of the Copyright Act, Ray was the first owner of the copyright of the screenplay and following his demise in 1992, the ownership of copyright was passed to his son Sandip Ray and the SPSRA. The main issue was whether the individual who has been commissioned by the producer to write the screenplay would have the ownership of the copyright of the screenplay or would it vest on the producer.

The First Owner of the Copyright of a Screenplay in a Film – the Author or the Producer?

The determination of a screenplay writers’ copyright ownership hinges upon the specific provisions outlined in their contractual agreements with the studio, which are often contracts of service and usually establish the studio as the initial copyright holder. However, by ruling that Ray was the first author and, thus, the owner of the screenplay, the court has clarified that he was functioning as an independent contractor rather than an employee of the producer.

According to Section 17(c) of the Copyright Act, if a work was created by an author while they were employed under a service or apprenticeship contract, the employer will be the owner of the copyright if there is no specific agreement to the contrary. In this case, the court held that Section 17(c) would not be applicable as the contract of service would be comparable to a contract of apprenticeship, which is considered as an employment contract between the master and the servant. This implies that the clause does not apply in situations where there is a contract between equals and one person contacts another to perform a service for him, as is in this instance with the screenplay and direction of a movie.

So, would this mean that the plaintiff does not have any rights in the film Nayak? Well, no, since the plaintiff will still have copyright over the film as per Section 17. But what is to be seen here is that while the plaintiff has the subsisting copyright in the film as per Section 17(b), the script and screenplay of the film constitute original “literary” works as per Section 17(a) and are to be considered as distinct from the film. And thus, while the producer of the film is the owner of the cinematograph work, the writer and director of the film, Ray, would be the owner of the copyright of the script and screenplay, something that the court has also clarified by holding that copyright in the cinematographic film under Section 13(1)(b) for the film Nayak will subsist with the producer.

Following this express recognition of the separate rights of Ray and RD Bansal, it is to be noted that there was no separate contractual agreement between Satyajit Ray and RD Bansal with respect to assigning the copyright held by Ray in the screenplay. Since the right to assign is a separate right recognized under Section 18, and such a separate agreement is mandated under Section 19, the Court has observed in Para 62.3 that the plaintiff’s claim over the copyright of the screenplay is unsupported by the provisions of the Copyright Act.

But the present case pertained to the novelization of the screenplay, so who has the right to allow this? The Court clarified that while novelization would involve the “reproduction” of the screenplay in a material form, the right of which is vested with the owner of the copyright as per Section 14, the same would not constitute “adaption” as stated in Section 2(a) since the screenplay is not abridged or converted into a dramatic work. And this thus implies that no right to authorize such novelization would vest with the producer. 

This thereby implies that all rights in the underlying work in the cinematographic film do not, by default, vest with the producer of the film, and thus in the present case, the plaintiff does not have the exclusive right to authorise any reproduction or publication of the screenplay as per Section 14(a).

The Court also held that the defendant has not made use of any part of the film in which the plaintiff holds the copyright and clarified that since only the screenplay and still photographs from the film, which constitute “underlying works”, were used, these do not come under the ownership of the producer. 

Therefore, the effect of these separate copyrights u/s 13(4), as discussed by the court, is that the copyright in a cinematographic film would not affect the copyright in the underlying works, even if they constitute a substantial part of the film itself. And thus, the right to novelize the underlying work in a cinematographic film can be determined as a right which is independent of the copyright held in the cinematographic film itself. 

Other Interesting Findings of the Court

Interestingly, the Court also provided a clarification regarding Section 3 of the Copyright (Amendment) Act, 1992. The petitioner contended that the validity of the copyright of literary works, which was increased from fifty years to sixty years, as per Section 2 of the 1992 Amendment Act, would not be applicable in this context since the Amendment Act took place after the commencement of the release of the film. The Court, however, dismissed this argument stating that Section 3, which states that “copyright shall not subsist by virtue of the 1993 Amendment Act in any work in which the copyright did not subsist immediately before the commencement of the 1993 Amendment Act”, needs to be interpreted as if the copyright in the subject work did not lapse before the 1993 Amendment Act went into effect, it would still be in effect, and the copyright holder would be entitled to the benefits of the Amendment Act. This means that since the copyright in favour of the plaintiff was subsisting immediately before the Amendment Act, the plaintiff could avail the benefit of Section 2 of the Amendment Act. 

The Court also noted that the case of Indian Performing Rights Society v. Eastern Indian Motion Pictures (“IPRS case”) would not be applicable in the present context since, in that case, the dilemma was whether the composer of a musical work could restrain the producer from screening the movie that featured their work in public. While the Court made it clear in the IPRS case that the composer’s ability to otherwise economically exploit the musical piece was still protected, the producer of the film had the sole right to reproduce the film under Section 14(c). The Court concluded that since the IPRS case dealt with the rights of the producer pertaining to the soundtrack of the film, as opposed to the screenplay of the film, which is a separate category of underlying works. This underscores the fact that no two underlying works are alike, and it is essential to treat each of them distinctly. The defendant’s use of only the screenplay and still photographs, which qualify as underlying works, further supports this distinction.

Concluding Remarks

Our case at hand clarifies that the authors of the screenplay and script hold independent copyrights in their respective works, separate from the film itself, by deeming Satyajit Ray as the first owner of the copyright of the screenplay of the film. The court also affirmed that following his demise, this right passes to his son, Sandip Ray, and the Society for Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives (SPSRA). Regarding the issue of novelization, the court clarified that it involves the reproduction of the screenplay but does not constitute adaptation unless the screenplay is abridged or converted into a dramatic work. As such, the right to authorize novelization does not vest with the producer but remains with the copyright owner. This decision is commendable when it comes to distinguishing the underlying works and adds another victory for the authors of the underlying work after the Bombay High Court order on the rights of composers and lyricists in the broadcast of a sound recording.

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