In a copyright dispute involving two giants of the media industry, Shemaroo sued Super Cassettes (SCIPL), in Shemaroo Entertainment Ltd vs Super Cassettes Industries Pvt Ltd and Ors, for allegedly publishing audio-visuals of songs from 24 films (suit films) without seeking prior permission from it. However, a Single Judge Bench of the Bombay High Court refused to grant a temporary injunction to Shemaroo placing significant emphasis on the title of the assignment deed to ascertain the rights of the parties rather than reading the exclusive rights mentioned in it. In this post I shall discuss the case and how the court’s reading contributes to the loopholes in interpreting assignment agreements.
The parties in the case are Shemaroo entertainment company (Plaintiff), SCIPL (Defendant no. 1), B4U Broadband (India) Pvt. Ltd. (Defendant no. 2) and Google (Defendant no. 3). Shemaroo entered into assignment deeds with the producers and owners of the suit films between 2004-2016, acquiring sole, exclusive and absolute ownership of all the vested copyrights. It granted a temporary and non-exclusive licence to Defendant No 2 for one year during 2014-15 for use of some of the content of the suit films. However, after expiration of the period, Defendant 2 continued to exploit rights against which Plaintiff issued a cease and desist notice twice. The Defendant No 2 came up with claims of having entered into licence and assignment agreement with third parties. Amongst the third parties, one was Defendant No 1, who communicated to the Plaintiff that it has acquired exclusive copyrights in audio-visuals of the songs of the suit films from the respective producers. Plaintiff filed this suit after the Defendant refused to resolve the matter amicably and didn’t reply to the Plaintiff’s cease and desist notice.
The Single Judge bench of the Bombay High Court (BHC) refused to grant an interim injunction to the Plaintiff since it failed to prove a strong prima facie case not producing the relevant documents to assert its copyright ownership. The Plaintiff’s excuse of documents being voluminous was rejected and assertion of copyright ownership for 9 of the suit films was rejected. The BHC rejected Plaintiff’s claim that only audio rights vested in favour of the Defendant No 1 with respect to the remaining 15 suit films. While considering the clauses of the assignment deeds, BHC mentioned that referring “the said work” to the film, at the very beginning of the assignment deed fails to prove that the assignment was concerned only with the audio rights. It upheld Defendant no 1’s claim of rights in audio-visual of songs of suit films since no objection was raised by the producers of the suit films and the Plaintiff late in approaching the Court for this matter.
At the onset, BHC supported Defendant no 1’s reliance on K Bose Babu vs Gowri Productions and correctly held that a strong prima facie case needs to be put up by the Plaintiff in order to obtain a temporary injunction. The Plaintiff’s failure to produce link documents that support its assertion of copyright ownership led to the refusal of grant of temporary injunction in its favour. Plaintiff oddly didn’t produce the link documents on the excuse that the documents were voluminous and could be produced at the request of the court subsequent to filing of the plaint, relying on Order XI of CPC. This also led to ruling that Plaintiff does not have copyright ownership of the 9 suit films since it was unable to produce relevant documents to prove otherwise.
With respect to the excuse of voluminous documents, BHC referred to the case of Sudhir Kumar vs Vinay Kumar, wherein the Supreme Court of India already rejected a similar contention.
Under Order XI of CPC, Rule 4 allows submission of additional documents within 30 days of filing of the suit and Rule 5 allows placing of documents only with the permission of the Court.
In the present case, BHC observed that Plaintiff failed to produce documents even after passing of 30 days after filing of the suit and refused to comment on Rule 5 as the Plaintiff didn’t file the application under it.
- Approach of the court in interpreting rights of Defendant No 1 via assignment deed
For the remaining 15 suit films, BHC, looked at one of the assignment deeds (Deed) executed in favour of the Defendant No 1 to ascertain the rights of the parties. BHC erroneously placed heavy reliance onto the term “the said work” referred to as the Film in the assignment deed rather than reading the entire phrase which says:
“ 2. ASSIGNMENT:
In consideration of the sum hereinafter agreed to be paid, the Producers as beneficial owners hereby assign to the company the following exclusive rights in the said work, namely:”.
The court correctly supported Defendant’s emphasis on sub clauses (i), (xi) and (xii) along with clauses 7 and 12 of the Deed to hold that the rights assigned to Defendant No 1 was not limited to audio rights but rights in the entire film. But while interpreting the Deed, it merely placed reliance on the term “the said work” and what it connotes when the clause presented above vividly states that the ‘Producers assign the “following exclusive rights”’ i.e. the rights mentioned in the subsequent subclauses. The BHC should have based its judgement upon the reading and meaning of the exclusive rights assigned to the Defendant No 1. The conclusion then would have accrued from treating the exclusive rights as the subject matter and not the term “the said work” as the subject matter. The implication of such a reading will allow Parties to manipulate the court to focus on the terms that benefit their whims and pockets rather than following a reasonable approach to interpret an agreement.
- Delayed approach to court
BHC also supported Defendant No 1’s contention that the Plaintiff delayed in approaching the court for the matter since the Defendant No 1, as per the Plaintiff’s submissions too, have been exploiting rights in audio-visuals of the songs of the suit films since 2012. However, BHC missed that this fact came to the Plaintiff’s knowledge only in 2017 when it sent the second cease and desist notice to Defendant No 2. After further communications, it sent a cease and desist notice to Defendant No 1 and later asked to resolve the matter amicably. Only after Defendant No 1’s continuous use of the rights did the Plaintiff filed a suit, thereby exhausting all the available remedies before reaching the Court. A party should not be punished for having used remedies that come prior to filing a suit. An implication otherwise, disrespects the available remedies and only encourages people to exploit court remedies when simpler ones are available to be used for harassment and inconvenience to the other party.