The Delhi High Court’s decision in Kishore Singh v. Sarla Saraogi & Ors. sheds light on the complex legal battle over the celebrity rights of the late actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Following his untimely demise in 2020, his father’s claim to be the legal heir and the ensuing disregard for family consent by Sarla Saraogi and others in producing the movie, ‘Nyay: The Justice’ prompted a lawsuit. This lawsuit, which revolves around the concepts of ‘publicity right,’ ‘celebrity right,’ and ‘personality right,’ explores the delicate intersection of artistic freedom, family consent, and commemorative tributes, emphasising the complexities of legacy management of posthumous celebrities.
The Plaintiff’s Contentions
- argues that celebrity rights have emerged as a distinct aspect of intellectual property, including personality, privacy, and publicity rights. He emphasises that celebrities like SSR possess a unique combination of these rights and are protected from their unjust exploitation.
- Plaintiff argues that the film’s defamatory claims and unverified news violate SSR’s right to privacy and Article 21 of the Constitution. He insists that any publication of SSR-related information requires prior approval.
- It was argued that the Plaintiff has the authority to regulate the use of SSR’s name, image, and likeness, and that their unauthorised use violates his personality rights. Further, the Plaintiff is the legal heir to these rights and that the film’s depiction of private events violates privacy.
- Plaintiff relies on the judgement of ICC Development (International) Ltd. v. Arvee Enterprises as an example of posthumous celebrity rights and the inheritance of personality rights. Plaintiff also relied on Justice K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India to demonstrate that the right to publicity continues to exist beyond the realm of privacy.
The Defendant’s Contentions
- Defendant emphasises the scope of the proceeding to evaluate post-release modifications that justify an injunction. He argues that Plaintiff’s complaint does not present any transformative circumstances, and that Narula, J.’s initial opinion remains unaffected.
- Defendant argues, with reference to Puttaswamy, that privacy and publicity rights derive from Article 21 of the Constitution. He contends that if post-mortem privacy does not remain, neither do publicity rights, even if SSR had these rights, they ceased to exist upon his demise.
- He asserts that there is no violation of privacy or publicity when a film employs publicly available information. He cites the Plaintiff’s admission that he relied on public media articles to demonstrate that privacy rights do not extend to common knowledge, as supported by cases such as Ramgopal Varma v. Perumalla Amrutha.
- Defendant contests the concept of absolute rights over SSR’s persona and rejects claims of defamation. He argues that commercial use may necessitate damages rather than an injunction.
- It was further disputed that the film is a biopic, citing R. Rajagopal v. State of Tamil Nadu to support his position. He asserts the legitimacy of public-based films by citing disclaimers and legal precedents such as Sahara One Media v. Sampat Lal, Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd v. Eros International Media Ltd., and others. In conclusion, he asserts that the Plaintiff’s injunction request lacks merit.
The Court’s Decision
- The Court rejected the Defendant’s claim that the prominent disclaimer in the film invalidates its depiction of SSR’s life and history as a re-enactment. The Court asserts that the film is an unmistakably accurate depiction of SSR’s life, particularly the events surrounding his demise, and rejects the Defendant’s claim that the film is a generalised depiction of struggling actors. The Court deems the disclaimer deceptive and superficial, stating that it cannot override the obvious similarity between the film and actual events. In addition, the Court states that the Defendant’s cited legal precedents do not support the notion that disclaimers may cancel out actual connections. Therefore, the Court rejects the Defendant’s contention in this regard.
- The Court addressed the central issue of whether the challenged film violated any of the Plaintiff’s enforceable rights, concentrating on privacy, publicity, and personality rights. The Plaintiff argued that while the right to privacy did not survive SSR’s death due to legal precedent, the case rested on SSR’s right to publicity and celebrity rights. The Court then analysed several landmark decisions to establish the principles governing these rights, including R. Rajagopal, Khushwant Singh v. Maneka Gandhi, Titan Industries Ltd. v. Ramkumar Jewellers, ICC Development (International) Ltd., and Deepa Jayakumar v. A.L. Vijay, which discuss publicity rights and their applicability to individuals and businesses. The Court determined that SSR’s privacy, publicity, and personality rights were not inheritable, and because the rights themselves did not survive SSR’s demise, the Plaintiff could not seek injunctive relief based on these rights.
- Examining the concept of “celebrity rights,” the Court determined that they were a subspecies of personality rights and were not legally recognised as a distinct collection of rights. The Court disagreed with the notion of “celebrity rights” and held that personality rights derived from an individual’s persona should be available to everyone, not just celebrities. The Court delved further into the concept of passing off, differentiating the Plaintiff’s claim from traditional passing off cases and highlighting the element of deception in passing off, which was inapplicable in this case.
In conclusion, the Court stated that personality rights cannot be inherited. Reputation, personality, and privacy and personality rights that emanate therefrom, are not inheritable and the right to privacy cannot be canvassed by one person, on behalf of another, without due authorization. Further, the Court categorically dismissed any contention related to “celebrity rights” deeming it non-existent and further clarified that rights which emanate from one’s personality are available to all.
As for the prior consent of the Plaintiff, the Court stated that if the publication is based on public records, there can be no invasion of the right to privacy of a person.
 Kishore Singh v. Sarla Saraogi & Ors., CS(COMM) 187/2021, I.A. 10551/2021 & I.A. 14436/2021.
 ICC Development (International) Ltd v. Arvee Enterprises, 2003 SCC OnLine Del 2.
 Justice K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India, (2017) 10 SCC 1.
 Ramgopal Varma v. Perumalla Amrutha, MANU/TL/0352/2020.
 R. Rajagopal v. State of Tamil Nadu, (1994) 6 SCC 632.
 Sahara One Media v. Sampat Lal, MANU/DE/4370/2014
 Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd v. Eros International Media Ltd., (2021) 87 PTC 20.
 Khushwant Singh v. Maneka Gandhi, 2001 SCC OnLine Del 1030.
 Titan Industries Ltd. v. Ramkumar Jewellers, 2012 SCC OnLine Del 2382.
 Deepa Jayakumar v. A.L. Vijay, AIR 2021 Mad 167.