In a significant legal development concerning the rights of authors of underlying works, the Delhi High Court made a landmark ruling on 23rd May 2023 in the case of RDB and Co. HUF v. HarperCollins Publishers India Pvt. Ltd. The Court declared that the screenplay of the Bengali film “Nayak” was solely the creation of Satyajit Ray, an eminent filmmaker. Consequently, the Court determined that the exclusive right to adapt the screenplay of the movie into a novel belonged to Satyajit Ray himself. Furthermore, following his demise, this right would be inherited by his son, Sandip Ray, along with the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives (SPSRA).
This ruling clarifies and extends the scope of the author's rights and their subsequent transmission to rightful successors, acknowledging the significance of Satyajit Ray's creative contribution and ensuring the preservation of his artistic legacy.
The case revolves around a dispute regarding the ownership of rights related to the film "Nayak". Satyajit Ray, a renowned filmmaker, was commissioned by the film's producer, R. D. Bansal, to write the screenplay and direct the film, which was released in 1966. Several decades later, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay novelized the original screenplay, and the novel was published on May 5, 2018, by HarperCollins Publishers India Pvt. Ltd.
The Plaintiff in the case, RDB and Co. Hindu Undivided Family, with R. D Bansal as the Karta, alleged that the novelization of the screenplay and its publication violated their copyright as per Section 51 of the Copyright Act. The Plaintiff claimed that they held the copyright in the film, including all indirect, derivative, and related rights associated with it. They sought a permanent injunction against the Defendant, prohibiting them from publishing and distributing the novel. On the other hand, Defendant, having obtained a license to novelize the screenplay, disputed Plaintiff's claims.
They argued that according to Section 17 of the Copyright Act, Satyajit Ray was the initial owner of the screenplay's copyright. Following his death in 1992, the ownership of the copyright passed to his son, Sandip Ray, and the SPSRA. The main point of contention was whether the individual commissioned by the producer to write the screenplay would hold the copyright owner or if it would be vested in the producer.
The issue of copyright ownership in a screenplay within a film depends on the specific contractual agreements between the screenplay writer and the studio. Typically, these agreements establish the studio as the initial copyright holder, as they are often contracts of service. However, the recent court ruling clarified that Satyajit Ray, the screenplay writer, and director, was functioning as an independent contractor rather than an employee of the producer. Consequently, he was recognized as the first author and owner of the screenplay, and the provisions of Section 17(c) of the Copyright Act, which would assign copyright to the employer, did not apply in this case.
While the Plaintiff in the case retains copyright over the film itself under Section 17(b) of the Copyright Act, it is important to note that the script and screenplay of the film are considered distinct "literary" works under Section 17(a). Thus, while the producer owns the copyright to the cinematographic work, Ray, as the writer and director, holds the copyright to the script and screenplay. The court also emphasized that there was no separate contractual agreement between Ray and the producer regarding the assignment of copyright in the screenplay. As a result, Plaintiff's claim to the screenplay copyright was unsupported by the provisions of the Copyright Act.
Regarding the novelization of the screenplay, the Court clarified that it constitutes a "reproduction" of the screenplay in a tangible form, and the right to authorize such reproduction lies with the copyright owner under Section 14 of the Copyright Act. However, the Court determined that novelization does not fall under the category of "adaptation" as defined in Section 2(a) because it does not involve the abridgment or conversion of the screenplay into a dramatic work. Consequently, the producer does not possess the right to authorize novelization.
Furthermore, the Court clarified that the defendant did not utilize any part of the film in which the Plaintiff holds the copyright. Only the screenplay and still photographs from the film, which are considered "underlying works," were used. These underlying works do not fall under the ownership of the producer. Therefore, the copyright in a cinematographic film does not automatically extend to the copyright in the underlying works, even if they constitute a substantial part of the film. The right to novelize the underlying work within a cinematographic film is determined as a separate right, independent of the copyright held in the cinematographic film itself.
The Court also provided clarification on the interpretation of Section 3 of the Copyright (Amendment) Act, 1992. Plaintiff argued that the increased copyright validity from fifty to sixty years, as per Section 2 of the Amendment Act, would not apply because the Amendment Act came into effect after the film's release. However, the Court dismissed this argument and explained that Section 3 should be understood to mean that if the copyright in a work did not expire before the Amendment Act came into effect, it would still be valid, and the copyright holder could benefit from the Amendment Act. Since the Plaintiff's copyright was still in effect before the Amendment Act, they could avail the benefits of the increased copyright duration.
The Court distinguished the case of Indian Performing Rights Society v. Eastern Indian Motion Pictures (IPRS case) from the present context. In the IPRS case, the issue was whether the composer of a musical work could prevent the producer from publicly screening the film that featured their music. The Court clarified that the producer had the exclusive right to reproduce the film under Section 14(c), but the composer's economic exploitation of the musical piece was still protected.
The Court emphasized that the IPRS case dealt with the rights of the producer regarding the film's soundtrack, which is a separate category of underlying works from the screenplay. This highlights the need to treat each underlying work distinctly, as they are not the same. Defendant's use of only the screenplay and still photographs, which are considered underlying works, further supports this distinction.
This case establishes that the screenplay and scriptwriters hold individual copyrights in their respective works, separate from the film itself. The Court recognized Satyajit Ray as the initial copyright owner of the film's screenplay, and upon his passing, this right was passed on to his son, Sandip Ray, and the SPSRA. In terms of the novelization, the court clarified that it involves reproducing the screenplay, but it does not qualify as adaptation unless the screenplay is condensed or transformed into a dramatic work.
Consequently, the authority to permit novelization does not rest with the producer but remains with the copyright owner. This decision is significant in distinguishing the underlying works and adds to the recent victory for composers and lyricists in the broadcast of sound recordings as ruled by the Bombay High Court.
 The Copyright (Amendment) Act of 1992, S.3 <https://iprlawindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Copyright-Amendment-Act-1992.pdf> as accessed on 11th of June 2023.
 The Copyright (Amendment) Act of 1992, S.2 <https://iprlawindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Copyright-Amendment-Act-1992.pdf> as accessed on 11th of June 2023.
Eastern India Motion Pictures v. Performing Right Society Ltd., 1978 SCC OnLine Cal 121.