Delhi HC Rejects Plea For Injunction Against Novelization of Screenplay of Film ‘Nayak’

In an order[1] dated May 23, 2023, the Delhi High Court dismissed the plaintiff producer’s plea for a permanent injunction restraining the defendant from novelizing the screenplay of the 1966 film, ‘Nayak’.

The film’s screenplay was converted into a novel by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay and was published by the defendant in 2018. Aggrieved by this, the plaintiff producer approached the Delhi High Court, alleging that the novelization of the film’s screenplay and the publication of the novel amounted to copyright infringement as per provisions of the Copyright Act, 1957.

In this case, the main issue was whether the copyright in the film’s screenplay was owned by the film’s producer or the author of the screenplay, Satyajit Ray.

At the outset, it was clarified that the copyright in the film’s screenplay is not affected by the copyright in the cinematograph film, which vests in the plaintiff producer. Thereafter, the court proceeded with interpreting Section 17 of the Act, which states that the first owner of the copyright in the work is its author subject to provisos contained therein. The court expressed that none of the provisos, including the ones contained in clauses (b) and (c), applied to the present case.

According to Section 17(b), the person at whose instance a photograph was taken, a painting or portrait was drawn, or an engraving or a cinematograph film was made for valuable consideration would be the first owner of the copyright in such work, in the absence of any agreement to the contrary. The court remarked that this clause does not cover screenplays. However, the plaintiff relied on the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Indian Performing Rights Society v. Eastern Indian Motion Pictures[2] wherein it was held that the producer who commissions a composer for composing music or lyric for a cinematograph film would be the first owner of the copyright therein unless there is a contract to the contrary. Rejecting this contention, the court stated that such a right does not vest in the producer when it comes to the film’s screenplay since the Apex Court judgement took into consideration the definition of cinematograph film under Section 2(f) of the Act which included sound recordings.

The doctrine of noscitur a sociis was applied in the interpretation of Section 17(c) which states that the employer would be the first owner of the copyright in the work made during the course of the author’s employment under a contract of service or apprenticeship. Accordingly, the word “service” was construed in the context of the word appearing after it, “apprenticeship”. It was determined that the contract of service would be analogous to a contract of apprenticeship, which is “an employment contract between the master and the servant”. Drawing a distinction between a contract of service and a contract for service, the Single Judge Bench of Justice C Hari Shankar observed that the said clause does not apply “to cases of a contract between equals in which one person contacts with another to render a service to him such as, in the present case, writing the screenplay for and directing a film. At the highest, such a contract would be only a contract for service and not a contract of service.”

Hence, the court held that as the author of the screenplay, Satyajit Ray was the first owner of the copyright in the literary work as per Section 17 of the Act. The court ruled that after the demise of the author, the copyright vested in his son, Sandip Ray and the Society for Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives (SPSRA) and the assignment of the right to novelize the screenplay by them in favour of the defendant was “wholly in order and in accordance with the provisions of the Act”.

[1] RDB and Co. HUF vs. HarperCollins Publishers India Private Limited [IA 9516/2021 in CS(COMM) 246/2021].

[2] 1977 AIR 1443