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Delhi High Court Directs Telegram App to Disclose User Information

“If the protection of copyright is not evolved as per the changing times, it would have a chilling effect on the progressive initiatives taken by educators in sharing their materials and ensuring accessibility.”

In a recent copyright infringement suit, the Delhi High Court has directed Telegram to disclose the details of channels and users in a sealed cover, including their mobile numbers, e-mail IDs and IP addresses, which have been identified to be disseminating content in violation of the copyright law.

The plaintiffs alleged that the study material designed and curated by them for various competitive examinations was being circulated through multiple channels on Telegram without their due consent and authorization. Further, the Plaintiffs’ lecture videos were uploaded on these channels on a daily basis and were made available to the users at discounted rates. Books written by the plaintiffs were also being shared on such channels in PDF formats.

The Delhi High Court held that circulation of the study material on Telegram Channels would be “communication to the public” as per the provisions of Section2(ff) of the Copyright Act, 1957 (“Act”). Hence, such use shall constitute an infringement of the Plaintiffs’ work as defined under Section 2(m) of the Act, even if the same is enabled through electronic means.

It was the Court’s understanding that Telegram, by allowing channel operators to disseminate such material over various channels in “private mode,” was enabling copyright infringement and would thereby constitute “plates” (duplicating equipment) within Section 2(t) of the Act.

Citing the Information Technology Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics, 2021 (IT Guidelines), the Court observed that Telegram owed a duty of care towards protecting the IP rights of the users. Telegram defended itself by claiming that its servers were duly established in Singapore and that the country’s law prohibited such disclosure. To this, the Court rebutted by observing that “merely because Telegram chooses to locate its server in Singapore, the same cannot result in the Plaintiffs’ – who are copyright owners of course materials – being left completely remediless against the actual infringers, especially to claim damages and avail of other legal remedies in accordance with the law. If such an argument is accepted,  IP violations would go completely unchecked in the current world where most dissemination happens through online messaging services and platforms.”

The Court further added, “the provisions of the IT Act and the Rules made therein have to be construed harmoniously with the rights and remedies provided to the copyright owners under the Copyright Act. Indian Courts are competent to decide issues relating to infringement of copyright, and the mere fact that Telegram is operating a messaging service in India which chooses not to locate its servers in India cannot divest the Indian Courts from dealing with copyright disputes or divest copyright owners from availing their remedies in Indian Courts. In the present age of cloud computing and diminishing national boundaries in data storage, conventional concepts of territoriality cannot be strictly applied. The dynamic evolution of law is essential to ensure appropriate remedies in case of violation of copyright and other IP laws.”

Telegram also cited concerns about privacy violations among its users as Telegram is an “intermediary” under the IT Act. The Court, on the other hand, stated that “the origin and source of the infringing material have to be traced and such devices or persons involved in the infringement ought to face the consequences in accordance with the law, including being held liable for damages. That would not be possible if the source of such infringing copies, i.e., the details of the infringing channels, are not disclosed,”.

Impact

This is not the first time that Telegram has faced flak due to its privacy policy. Earlier in March this year, Brazil’s Supreme Court directed a national shutdown of Telegram on account of facilitating the spread of political misinformation and for non-cooperation with the authorities. However, this is the first time the messaging App has come under fire for copyright infringement and has been directed by the Court to disclose user information. Telegram had managed to amass a considerable user base due to its claims to prioritize privacy; however, as rightly pointed out by the Delhi High Court, if the dissemination of information through newer technologies and platforms remains unaccountable, IP violations will go unchecked. A balance between advancement and sustaining an enabling IPR culture is crucial for the country’s industrial, scientific and socio-economic growth.