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This article is written by Yatin Gaur, a student, pursuing B.A.LL.B. from Hidayatullah National Law University. In this article, the author discusses whether the paternity rights of work even extend to the contributor or not, by understanding the legal basis of such rights in the backdrop of the recent Chappak Movie Conundrum.

Introduction

Let us imagine a situation, where the members of an NGO working in the field of public health decides to make a documentary for the purpose of sensitising and creating awareness about the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Further, in order to ensure the authenticity of the documentary, they seek help from a senior journalist who has done a significant amount of research on the spread of the STD’s in the red-light areas. The journalist agrees and provides valuable inputs for the making of the documentary without seeking for any incentive or monetary benefits. But considering the amount of inputs provided by the journalist, the NGO agrees to acknowledge the contribution of the journalist in the documentary. Later, the documentary is released and turns out to be a huge success but the filmmakers did not give the due credits to the journalist. Now, the journalist approaches the court asking for the right to be acknowledged. 

But this problem gives rise to a whole series of legal questions that whether the journalist had any legal right to be publicly acknowledged for his contribution in the documentary? Or is it merely an ethical obligation for one to make such acknowledgement?  Whether this was a case of promissory estoppel or whether the paternity rights of work even extends to the contributor? All these are some of the pertinent legal questions that the author seeks to answer through this article by making a comprehensive analysis in the backdrop of the recent Chappak Movie Conundrum.

Recently, the Delhi High Court in the case of  Fox Star Studios (Division of Star India Private Limited) v. Aparna Bhat & Ors answered the above mentioned legal questions in assertive when the lawyer Aparna Bhatt moved before the Hon’ble Court with a similar plea. However, what makes this judgement so worthy to be scrutinised is the fact that it appears,  the Court has solely taken in its decision on the principles of morality and ethics without referring to any legal right of the plaintiff.

What are the moral rights 

But before proceeding to understand and examine the implications of the case of Fox Star Studios (Division of Star India Private Limited) v. Aparna Bhat & Ors. and the legitimacy of the claim of the contributor to be credited for work, it is important to understand the meaning of Moral rights and Parental Rights to have a comprehensive discussion further.

Moral Rights have been defined under Section 57 of the Copyright Act, 1957 which is in accordance with Article 6bis of the Berne Convention. These are the creator’s or author’s special right which primarily includes the right to paternity and the right to integrity.

i) The right to paternity: It is the right of the author to claim authorship over his work and have it attributed to him i.e, the right to be acknowledged. For instance, even if one gets his article published in a blog/journal, giving them all the copyrights on the same, still he has the right to be acknowledged and credited. It is also known as the Right to Attribution.

ii) The right to Integrity: The right to integrity basically empowers the author of a work to restrain or claim damages in the event of modification, mutilation, distortion, or any other untoward act done to his/her work. Further, what is essential to establish is the fact that the Act in question must be grave enough to result in prejudicing or jeopardising the reputation or honour of the author or creator provided that it should be done before the expiry of the term of the copyrighted work.

Scope: Although initially intended to protect only literary works, but now the scope of the moral rights has been extended to include musical, dramatic, artistic and cinematograph films as well.

Facts of the case 

The present case was in relation to the cinematographic film “Chhapaak” which was released on 10th January 2020. The movie is based on the life of an Acid attack victim Lakshmi Aggarwal, starring Deepika Padukone & Vikrant Massey in the lead roles and produced under the banner of Fox Star Studios (Petitioner). The Respondent in the present case was a practising lawyer Aparna Bhatt who fought the case for Laxmi Agarwal pro-bono. 

As per the fact of the case, the respondent was approached by the director, Meghna Gulzar to get some authenticity in the movie on the promise that her contribution would be acknowledged. The advocate contended that despite playing a pivotal role in securing justice for Lakshmi Aggarwal and helping in the making of the film by providing key inputs in the entire process of writing and shooting, she has not been given the due credits. The petitioner appealed in the High court against the trial court’s provisional decision.

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Arguments of the parties 

i) Arguments by the petitioner 

In the present case, the petitioner primarily argued over the following points: 

  1. The validity of the ex-parte ad-interim injunction by contending that the scope of the ex-parte ad-interim is only limited up to restoring the status quo and cannot be extended to create a fresh state of affairs. 
  2. It was argued that the Trial Court extended the relief sought by Mrs.Bhatt  as she had only prayed for restraint on the release of the film but the court rather ordered a mandatory injunction for the inclusion of credits in the film.
  3. The third argument that was put forward was that as per the Rule 36, Section IV, Chapter II, Part VI of the Bar Council of India, it is prohibited to advertise or promote a lawyer thus, the credit sought by the respondent being a lawyer is as such not allowed in the law, thus, the same cannot be granted by the Trial Court.
  4. Further, in the last and the most important argument it was contended that since there was no agreement/contract/understanding per se that was entered between parties about acknowledging the role of the respondent thus, there is no legal ground or violation of any legal right of the Respondent.

ii) Arguments by the respondent 

  1. The Respondent contended that apart from rendering pro-bono services for the acid attack victims for more than ten years, she has provided enormous help in the making and direction of the film by personally making corrections in the extracts of the script thus, establishing the understanding that the respondent contributed to the film. 
  2. Further, communications exchanged and various email threads were placed on record, evidencing that the Plaintiff shall in future, acknowledge the Respondent’s contribution in the film. 
  3. It was also submitted by the Respondent that the relief sought should be granted in the light of the principle of promissory estoppel. 
  4. Reliance was also placed on the various judgments including  Deoraj v. State of Maharashtra and Ors., Sajeev Pillai v. Venu Kunnapalli[ FAO No. 191/2019], Saregama India v. Balaji Motion Pictures Limited[ CS (COMM) 492/2019], Kirtibhai Raval v. Raghuram Jaisukhram to substantiate that an order similar to a final relief can also be passed at the interim stage. 
  5. It was also mentioned that while the Respondent’s name had not been mentioned in the opening credits but the names of the other parties like Alok Dixit (NGO owner), who was also a contributor to the film, was rightly acknowledged.

Judgement 

  1. The Single Judge upheld the judgement of the trial court and rationalised that the draft screenplay evidenced and the emails exchanged between the parties clearly acknowledged the Respondent’s contribution in the making and directing of the film.  
  2. Further, the court opined that since there was no consideration paid to the respondent by the Petitioner or there was no contract of service between the Plaintiff and the producers/director, it becomes the moral duty of the filmmaker to credit the respondent for the same.
  3. It was also stipulated that a person’s right cannot be prejudiced even if that person has contributed to only ’some part’ in making a cinematographic film.

This Court, therefore, recognized the right of a contributor to be acknowledged and credited for his/her contribution to the work that is the paternity right as provided under Section 57 of the Copyright Act, 1957.

Rationale behind the judgement 

In reaching the conclusion, the court placed reliance on the doctrine of promissory estoppel. But first of all, let’s understand the meaning of the term promissory estoppel.

Essentials of the doctrine of Promissory Estoppel 

In the landmark case of M/S Motilal Padampat Sugar Mills V. State Of Uttar Pradesh and Ors,1978 the Supreme Court held that for the application of the doctrine of promissory estoppel, it is necessary that: 

(a) Firstly, one party must have made a clear and unequivocal promise to the other party with an intent to create a legal relationship, and 

(b) Secondly, it is essential that the other party must have acted upon that promise and thereby, altered their position. 

Were both the conditions of promissory estoppel fulfilled in the present case: The court’s view 

  1. The court relied upon the communications exchanged between the parties, particularly the draft screenplay dated 8th January 2019, that had the respondent’s name and an email dated 17th November 2018, acknowledging the contribution of the respondent thereby concluding that it constitutes a promise.
  2. Although, the Court examined in great detail the first issue that whether the Defendants made any promise to the Plaintiff or not, but failed to analyse the second issue that whether the Plaintiff acted upon the alleged promise and altered her position.

Loopholes in the judgement 

To draw the critique of the judgement, it is important to delve into the reasoning behind the court’s judgement, to point out why the principle of promissory estoppel cannot be applied in the present case:

I. Promissory estoppel not applicable in the present case

i) Promissory estoppel without the promise 

Firstly, the observation of the court that in the present case the plaintiff did make a promise to the respondent that her contribution will be acknowledged in the film is itself based on  shaky grounds.

Email: The email that was produced as the evidence was only suggestive and not conclusive in nature. It merely acknowledged the Respondent’s contribution in making the film and did not state that the makers will give her credits in the film.

Draft Screenplay: The important thing to consider here is that although the draft screenplay indeed included the name of the respondents in the credits, still it raises some question in the mind that is this such a strong proof to establish that was there any ‘clear’ and ‘unequivocal’ promise that the same would be included in the final film or was it at best a mere ‘hope’ or ‘possibility’ in the mind of the respondent.

ii) Did the respondent alter her position

While still giving the benefit of the doubt even if we consider that the words/conduct suggested that the parties had the intention to create a legal relationship yet the second essential requirement that the facts of the present case suggest that the second condition which is that the other party must have acted upon that promise and altered his/her position was not also not fulfilled in the present case.

What should be noted here is that the Respondent had been giving inputs to the appellants since 2016 while the emails were sent only in 2018. This argument at first glance appears to be very weak and easily rebuttable by contending that even if she initially provided her assistance gratuitously but she continued to provide her assistance further (reviewing the final draft and providing various useful initiatives) because of the alleged promise only.

However, what is essential to point out here is that this is merely an assumption and the facts of the case indicate nothing about that the respondent would have discontinued her assistance or would have done something differently if she knew that she may not be credited for the work she is doing.

Therefore, in light of the above arguments, the author submits that the doctrine was not applicable in the instant case. However, it is significant to mention here that although the court solely took its decision keeping in the mind the doctrine of promissory estoppel but apparently it also indicated that even in the absence of a legal basis, the Respondent has the right to be acknowledged for one’s own inputs.

II. Right to be acknowledged for one’s inputs without a legal basis?

This basically suggests that the court also based its decision on the ground that the Respondent had proprietary rights in the inputs that she provided to the plaintiffs and even in an event of absence of a contract for the same, she at the least had a right to be credited for the same. The apposite part of the decision reads as follows:

“Since there was no contract or agreement vesting the Plaintiff’s contribution in the Producer/Director, but she still has the rights in the inputs that have been provided by her, including in the various scenes of the screenplay. It was further held that her efforts, skill and labour cannot vest with the producer completely gratuitously even in the absence of a contract and payment of consideration. Thus, she at the least has a right to be acknowledged and  credited, to which the Producer/Director had willingly agreed since the beginning of the project.”

Since we all know that the Copyright Act, 1957 confers authors and performers with a moral right to be credited for their work or performance as the case may be, and is independent of the exclusive/economic rights granted to them. But in the present case, the question was not so simple as here the issue was about whether this right of paternity is extended to even the persons who are not the authors/contributors but only contributed in the work/performance by providing valuable assistance and inputs. The court answered the above legal dilemma in affirmative, suggesting that that the right of paternity is an intrinsic component of the moral rights of a person who makes any contribution.

  1. The Court based its decision on the case of Neha Bhasin v Anand Raaj Anand & Anr. (2006) 132 DLT 196“ where it was held that the existence of a written contract is not an essential condition in order for any person’s paternity rights in any work to be recognised. In the instant case, the Supreme Court recognized the right of the singer therein to be acknowledged as the lead female singer as against just a singer.
  2. The Hon’ble Court also rationalised the argument in the light of the case-law of Suresh Jindal v Rizsoli Corriere Della Sera Prodzioni T.V. Spa and Others 1991 Supp (2) SCC in which it was held by the court that even `some part’ that the Plaintiff therein played in the film, deserves to be acknowledged.

The Case laws referred were not applicable in the present context 

However, what is interesting to note here is the fact that even the Supreme court’s judgement in the case of Suresh Jindal v. Rizsoli Corriere Della Sera Prodzioni T.V. Spa and Ors, also did not provide any legal basis for acknowledging the plaintiff’s contribution in making the film by including the plaintiff’s name in the ‘opening credits’.

While the other case that was referred here i.e, the Neha Bhasin v Anand Raaj Anand & Anr. (2006) 132 DLT 196 case was also not very relevant in the present context as in that case the Supreme court basically delved on the question of right in equity by directing the defendants to acknowledge the Plaintiff, as the female lead singer of a song, instead of as a mere backup vocalist which had wrongly been shown to be. The Court noted that the plaintiff has a right in equity to be given the due credits for the song sung by her, recognising her right to prevent it from being attributed to someone else. But, what is important to ascertain here is that whether despite being the lead singer in a song and not being credited for it is the same situation as being a contributor in a work and not acknowledged for the same. 

Questions left unanswered 

What is disappointing here is the fact that the Court did not explain or substantiate the above assertion with any legal basis or judicial pronouncements that why and how such a legal right exists in one’s inputs and the rationale behind that; why one cannot let another use the inputs completely gratuitously, thus left various pertinent questions unanswered. Rather, it chose to pronounce the judgment on the basis of moral issues. 

  1. The court failed to refer to any legal right of the respondent that has been infringed by the plaintiff by not giving the credit to her or was sought to be enforced.
  2. The Court also did not cite any English or Indian precedents in support of such a right that the contributor in a cinematographic film too has the right of attribution.
  3. The Court even did not elaborate upon the scope of the right and rather directed the Respondent’s service to be acknowledged even without mentioning the existence of any such right. 
  4. The court also did not stipulate whether the right of paternity extends to any and every person who makes a contribution to work or only to performers/author or extends to contributors only in certain specific cases.

Infringement of Section 16 of the Copyright Act 

It is further submitted that the order of the court to grant the right of attribution to the contributor in any liberatory, artistic or cinematographic work also stands in conflict with the Section 16 of the Copyright Act which states that no person can be granted or is entitled to copyright or any similar right in any work, otherwise in accordance of the provisions of the Copyright Act for the time being in force. The interpretation of the word “any similar right” plays a very important role in drawing out the above observation.

Contempt petition 

Lawyer Aparna Bhatt after the judgement of the Delhi High Court dated January 11, 2020, again moved to the court and filed a contempt petition citing non-compliance of the Delhi High court’s Judgement. The petitioner averred that the filmmakers, despite the Delhi High court order, have failed to give the due credits to the petitioner in the copy of the film which is being screened outside India. The petition was first brought before Justice AK Chawla, who refused to hear it citing that he had already worked with the petitioner earlier. The matter was then heard on January 29, by another bench.

However, during the contempt proceedings, it was mutually agreed by the parties to solve the matter amicably and therefore, the filmmakers later claimed that they had misinterpreted the order and further agreed to give credit to the petitioner in the foreign screenings as well, and consequently, the court disposed off the petition.

Conclusion 

This case, despite falling short of providing the legal basis and the scope of the right of the attribution is still very important, as it extends the scope of the moral rights as mentioned under Section 57 of the Copyright Act, 1957 (part of moral rights) to acknowledge the paternity rights of the contributor. 

It also advances the argument that if any person has contributed even ‘some part’ in making a cinematographic film, then that person’s right cannot be prejudiced by not giving him/her any recognition or acknowledgement even the absence of a contract to that effect. Further, it also established that the doctrine of promissory estoppel plays a very strong and useful role in reaching the conclusion of such cases.

References

  1. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/chhapaak-row-filmmakers-allegedly-misconstrue-court-orders-credit-victims-lawyer-only-in-indian-theatres/articleshow/73660067.cms?from=mdr#:~:text=NEW%20DELHI%3A%20The%20makers%20of,screened%20in%20Indian%20theatres%20only.
  2. https://spicyip.com/2020/01/chhapaak-credits-conundrum-does-every-contributor-to-a-work-have-a-right-to-be-credited.html
  3. https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/court-directs-chhapaak-film-makers-to-give-credit-to-lawyer-of-acid-attack-survivor-laxmi/1704389
  4. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/chhapaak-credit-row-delhi-court-rules-in-favour-of-laxmi-agarwals-lawyer-asks-producers-to-give-due-credit/articleshow/73169597.cms?from=mdr
  5. https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/court-directs-chhapaak-film-makers-to-give-credit-to-lawyer-of-acid-attack-survivor-laxmi-120010900528_1.html

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