Bombay High Court has held that in the case of literary artworks, copyright extends not only to the expression of the core idea but also to its theme, plot and the storyline.
The order pronounced on Friday came on a plea filed by Urdu writer Shamoil Ahmad Khan who claimed that Falguni Shah and two others had infringed his copyright in one of his short stories, Singardan (Dressing Table), and produced a web series under the same title.
It is being aired on an online platform, Ullu, and is also available on YouTube, Khan said. Khan claimed that producers of the web series had not only copied the title but also the entire plot, narrative and characters of his story.
Producers of the web series opposed his plea for an injunction claiming that save and except the central idea of Singardaan, there was no other similarity between Khan’s work and the web series.
They claimed that the central idea—a man taking away a dressing table from a brothel to his home during riots and its use leading to changes in the behaviour of the womenfolk at home—by itself was not entitled to any copyright protection.
They submitted that the depiction of the central idea in the web series, including the pathos, texture, treatment, purport and presentation, was materially different from Khan’s story and therefore there was no question of infringement.
The argument, however, failed to impress upon justice SC Gupte.
The judge said it’s true that copyright does not extend to ideas, or schemes, or systems, or methods and it is confined to their expression, and if the expression is not copied the copyright is not infringed.
Justice Gupte clarified that in a literary artwork a germ of an idea is developed into a theme and then into a plot and then the final story with the help of characters and settings. It is the combination of all these elements which give a substance to the work, he said.
“If one goes on stripping the final work of these various elements, one may finally come to the bare idea or abstraction which no longer enjoys copyright protection.”
Justice Gupte said when someone strips the story of Singardaan of its embellishments, the motivations and the tribulations of its characters and their actual actions, they get the plot and the storyline.
“The above narration is the life and blood of the plaintiff’s (Khan’s) story,” said the judge.
He added it cannot be said that the writer has copyright only in the details of expression and that those are embellishments – the details which have no essential bearing on the theme, plot and storyline of Khan’s work.
“If someone steals this theme, plot and storyline, is he not thereby plagiarising the expression of the plaintiff’s work? Can the above theme, plot and storyline be simply dismissed as non-protectable ideas of the plaintiff’s work and not its expression? I think not. We have not yet reached that level of extraction where the work can be stripped to its non-protectable idea,” he said.
The judge concluded that though the producers of the web series developed Khan’s theme, plot and storyline in a different manner, prima face it was a case of copyright infringement, and restrained them from making any further adaptation of Singardaan.
The court also directed them to maintain accounts of the revenue earned from the web series, right from its inception till disposal of Khan’s suit.