• Dr. Mohan Dewan assisted by Ms. Simran Kaur Sandhu

In the realm of film and television, screenplays play a crucial role as the foundation for visual storytelling. A well-crafted screenplay is the blueprint that brings a story to life on the screen. Therefore, the question of who owns the copyright in the screenplay of a film holds great importance. Whether it is the producer of the film, or the author of the screenplay? In India, the laws related to copyright protection are governed by the Copyright Act, 1957 (the Act) along with Copyright Rules.

Recently, RD Bansal and Co., a HUF of the well-known producer R D Bansal brought a copyright infringement suit before High Court of Delhi against a publishing house for infringing its rights in the screen play of the cinematograph film ‘Nayak’. The Hon’ble Delhi High Court declared that the esteemed filmmaker, late Satyajit Ray, who wrote the screenplay for the 1966 Bengali film 'Nayak’ (also known as 'Nayak: The Hero'), is the rightful first owner of the film's copyright. Justice C. Hari Shankar dismissed the claim made by RD Bansal's family, who contended that they held the copyright in both the film and screenplay of 'Nayak’ being the producers of the said cinematograph film.

Satyajit Ray, a celebrated master of cinema, passed away in 1992. 'Nayak’ starring Uttam Kumar and Sharmila Tagore, is a psychological drama set on a train, exploring the struggles of the aspiring and restless middle class in 1960s Bengal, encompassing themes of money and Marxism. The film received the Special Jury Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Ray penned both the story and screenplay for 'Nayak’, making it the second film where he was solely responsible for the writing, following 'Kanchenjungha' in 1962.

The Bansal family had sought to prevent Harper Collins from publishing and distributing a novelization of Ray's screenplay for 'Nayak’, authored by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, arguing that it infringed upon their copyright. However, Harper Collins contended that the copyright rightfully belonged to Satyajit Ray and subsequently to his son, Sandip Ray, and the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives (SPSRA).

Section 13 of the Act provides for the Works in which copyright subsists which includes the original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works; cinematograph films; and sound recording.  A further reading of the said provision, it becomes evident that the copyright in a film does not affect the independent copyright in any work in respect of which or a substantial part of which, the film is made. Upon closely examining the provisions of the Copyright Act and the judicial precedents, the Hon’ble Court opined that the screenplay of the film is within the ambit of the expression “literary work” for the purpose of Section 13 of the Act.

Justice C Hari Shankar dismissed the Bansal family's suit, stating that they had no authority to prohibit third parties from novelizing the screenplay. The court noted that there was no dispute regarding the screenplay being solely the work of Satyajit Ray, with no contribution from the producer. The Hon’ble High Court determined that under Section 17 of the Act, Satyajit Ray, as the screenplay's author, was the initial copyright owner of the screenplay, and the right to create a novelization rested with him. The subsequent granting of this right by Sandip Ray and SPSRA to a third party was deemed legitimate.

Section 17 of the Act recognises the general rule that the author is the first owner of the copyright except in certain special cases. It provides for instances where any person pays consideration for the work done or at whose instance the work is done, in absence of any contract contrary, such person shall become the owner of the copyright thereof.

Consequently, the Hon’ble High Court concluded that the copyright in the screenplay of 'Nayak' belonged to Sandip Ray and SPSRA after the demise of Satyajit Ray. The court ruled that the conferment of the right to novelize the screenplay to the Defendant by Sandip Ray and SPSRA was entirely valid.


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