Copyright Law And Startups In India: Fair Use And Infringement Issues

Posted On - 25 July, 2023 • By - King Stubb & Kasiva


Copyright law is critical to the preservation of intellectual property rights, particularly for startups. Startups rely largely on their original ideas, content, and designs to obtain a competitive advantage in a quickly changing digital market where innovation and creativity flourish. Copyright law safeguards these valuable assets by granting startups ownership and control over their inventions.

The primary aim of copyright law is to allow creators exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, and exhibit their works. In this way, copyright law fosters innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurial activities. Copyright law provides startups with the legal protection they need to monetize their products and prohibit others from using them without permission, whether it’s a software application, a unique design, a piece of music, or an original piece of writing.

The Copyright Act of 1957 governs copyright law in India, and it has been modified regularly to reflect the changing technology and creative industries landscape. The Act grants creators exclusive rights to their works for a set length of time, safeguarding them against illegal use or exploitation.

This article aims to look at the intricate aspects of copyright law in India in the following manner:

  • Understanding Copyright Law in India
  • Fair Use Doctrine and Startups
  • Infringement Issues and Challenges for Startups
  • Strategies for Startups to Ensure Compliance

The Copyright Act of 1957, which governs copyright law in India, seeks to protect the original expression of ideas and information. It grants authors economic rights, such as the ability to reproduce, distribute copies, perform, and communicate their work to the public. Moral rights, such as the right to claim authorship and the protection of one’s honor and reputation, are also guaranteed. Copyright enforcement was transferred from the Copyright Board to the Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB) and then to the Commercial Courts.

According to the Berne Convention, copyright registration is voluntary in India. However, registration provides advantages such as registering with Indian Customs to prevent the importation of infringing duplicates and providing a public record of ownership. In the event of an infringement, registered owners are entitled to statutory damages.

To register a copyright, applicants must submit an application to the Copyright Office[1], undergo review, and respond to any objections. Upon acceptance, the registrar inputs the copyright information into the Register of Copyrights and provides the applicant with Extracts of the Register of Copyrights.

Duration of Copyrights

Literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works are protected for 60 years after the author’s death or sixty years after the death of the last author in the case of multiple authors. Films, sound recordings, photographs, posthumous publications, and the works of government and international organizations are protected for 60 years from the publication date. The protection period for unpublished cinematograph films, photographs, and computer programs is 60 years from the date of creation. Sound recordings have a duration of 60 years from the end of the year of their first publication, while reproduction rights for broadcasts last for 25 years from the year of broadcast, and performers’ rights last for 50 years from the year of performance.

Recent Amendments

Recent amendments to the Copyright Act, which went into effect on 30 March 2021[2], were centered on aligning rules with pertinent legislation, fostering transparency, and adopting electronic communication and operations within the Copyright Office. In addition, Copyright Societies now are required to publish an Annual Transparency Report that details license refusals, royalties, and transactions with foreign societies or organizations.

Fair Use Doctrine and Startups

The Fair Use doctrine is an exception to copyright law that permits the limited use of copyrighted material without the copyright holder’s permission. This doctrine promotes a balance between protecting the rights of copyright owners and permitting the use of copyrighted works for specific purposes, such as private or personal use, research, criticism, review, reporting on current events, or legal proceedings.

Fair Use is determined on a case-by-case basis, taking into account factors, as laid by Justice Story in the US decision of Folsom v. Marsh[3], such as:

  • The purpose of the use
  • The nature of the work
  • The amount of work used, and
  • The effect of use on the original work

In the Indian legal framework, Fair Use is comparable to Fair Dealing in the United Kingdom and Fair Use in the United States. International case precedents, such as Hubbard v. Vosper[4] and Folsom v. Marsh, have had a significant impact on the conception of Fair Use in India.

Indian Scenario

This doctrine has been recognized as the “Fair Dealing” doctrine under Section 52 of the Copyright Act. Further amendments to the Copyright Act, including the Copyright (Amendment) Act of 2012[5], have expanded the definition of Fair Dealing to include musical and cinematic works. These amendments are intended to benefit individuals with disabilities by permitting access to copyrighted works for personal use, research, and educational purposes.

India’s current position on fair dealing is characterized by the absence of specific laws or guidelines regarding the quantity of work that may be used without permission under this exception. Certain variables have been supported and applied in fair dealing instances, drawing inspiration from British and American approaches.

  • Amount and substantiality of the portion used: The courts evaluate the extent of the duplication and whether it constitutes a significant taking. The intent of the alleged infringer is crucial to determining equity, but it is not decisive. In cases such as Blackwood[6] and SK Dutt v. Law Book Co. and Others[7], courts have evaluated acknowledgments and the extent of copying.
  • Purpose and nature of the use: Section 52 of the Indian Copyright Act specifies the types of uses that qualify as fair use. Fair dealing may not exist if the purpose of reproduction does not lie within the enumerated purposes. The courts emphasize the transformative nature of the use, which necessitates an independent contribution and distinction from the original work. V Ramaiah v. K Lakshmaiah[8] demonstrates the need for change in cases involving fair dealing.
  • Effect on the potential market and likelihood of competition: This factor has relatively less application in India, but the courts have recognized the significance of competition. In ESPN Stars Sports[9], the court endorsed the likelihood of competition and deemed it unjust if a work conveys the same information as the original for a competing purpose.

Relevance for Startups

In the context of startups, the Fair Use doctrine allows for the flexible use of copyrighted materials while still respecting the rights of copyright holders. Common startup activities include research, criticism, review, and reporting, for which Fair Use exemptions may apply. However, startups must evaluate their use of copyrighted material cautiously and ensure that it falls within Fair Use guidelines.To ensure that their use of copyrighted materials falls within the parameters of Fair Use, startups should exercise caution and seek legal advice. Understanding the restrictions and requirements of Fair Use can assist startups in navigating copyright law while encouraging innovation and creativity in their operations.

Infringement Issues and Challenges for Startups

  • Infringement of Copyright: Copyright infringement is the unauthorized use or reproduction of copyrighted material without the owner’s permission. It can result in legal consequences, such as litigation, fines, and injunctions, which can have a devastating effect on startups.
  • Potential Risks and Obstacles: Due to limited resources and awareness, copyright infringement is frequently an issue for startups. Inadequate copyright audits and reliance on user-generated content can increase the likelihood of infringement.
  • User-Generated Content and Liability: User-generated content consists of contributions made by platform users. Startups may be held liable for copyright violations if users upload copyrighted content without permission.
  • Safe Harbour Provisions: Indian law provides entrepreneurs with safe harbour protections under specific conditions. Startups can claim immunity from liability if they fulfil certain obligations, such as instituting notice and takedown procedures, maintaining compliance policies, and promptly responding to infringement notices.

Strategies for Startups to Ensure Compliance

  • Conducting Copyright Audits: Startups should conduct copyright audits regularly to identify potential infringement risks and establish appropriate compliance procedures. Audits help identify unlicensed use of copyrighted material and enable startups to take corrective action.
  • Licenses and Permissions: Obtaining the correct licenses and permissions for copyrighted content is crucial. Startups should navigate licensing agreements and negotiate reasonable terms to ensure that they have the legal rights to use copyrighted content.
  • Educating Employees and Users: Employees and users must be educated on copyright laws and best practices to prevent accidental infringement. Raising user awareness through explicit copyright policies, guidelines, and education initiatives can also aid in preventing copyright violations on startup platforms.


India’s copyright law maintains a balance between intellectual property protection and innovation promotion. The concept of equitable dealing allows for flexibility, but the absence of specific guidelines presents obstacles. Copyright infringement hazards related to user-generated content must be navigated by startups. Safe harbour clauses provide protection, but compliance is essential. Compliance must be ensured by conducting copyright audits, procuring licenses, and educating employees and users. In the future, copyright law will continue to adjust to the digital era, necessitating ongoing vigilance and adaptation by startups to thrive in a constantly changing environment.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

u003cstrongu003eIs Copyright registration mandatory in India?u003c/strongu003e

In India, copyright registration is not compulsory. Regardless of registration, copyright protection exists inherently upon the creation of an original work. Nonetheless, registration has several benefits, including the creation of a public record of ownership and eligibility for statutory damages in the event of infringement.

u003cstrongu003eWhat factors are considered in determining Fair Dealing in India?u003c/strongu003e

Fair dealing is determined on a case-by-case basis in India, considering factors such as the amount and substantiality of the portion used, the intention and nature of the use, and the potential impact on the market or competition. The courts evaluate each case based on these considerations to determine whether the use falls under fair dealing exceptions. 

u003cstrongu003eHow can startups protect themselves from copyright infringement risks?u003c/strongu003e

By implementing appropriate policies and procedures, startups can reduce the likelihood of copyright infringement. This includes instituting robust content moderation systems, acquiring the appropriate licenses and permissions for copyrighted content, and educating employees and users about copyright laws and best practices. Regular copyright audits can help identify and mitigate potential infringement risks, protecting the startup from legal issues and ensuring compliance.



[3]Folsom v. Marsh, 9. F.Cas. 342.

[4]Hubbard v. Vosper, CA 1971 [1972] 2 WLR 389.


[6]AIR 1959 Mad 410 Para 86.

[7]SK Dutt v. Law Book Co. and Others, AIR 1954 All 570 Para 45.

[8]V Ramaiah v. K Lakshmaiah, 1989 (9) PTC 137.

[9]ESPN Stars Sports v. Global Broadcast News Ltd and Ors, 2008 (36) PTC 492 (Del) Para 17.

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