Movie Titles and their Protection in India

Ms. Shreya Shrivastava, an intern at Khurana & Khurana, Advocates and IP Attorneys looks into the aspect of protection of Movie titles in India along with the parameters to avail the same.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Turns out this quote by William Shakespeare does not hold true for the Producers of motion pictures. A name is an identity for a person, product, company, books or movies.

When it comes to choosing a title for a movie, film makers are very particular about the uniqueness and suitability. A title that is catchy and distinctive finds a place in the minds of the audience instantly and thus lots of money and efforts are put into achieving the right one.

The conventional practice followed by the film producers is to get the plot or titles registered with the film industry associations like Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association;Film Writers’ Association; Television Producers’ Guild of India; Association of Motion Pictures and Television Program Producers and Film and Western India Film Producers Association. These associations are working consistently to endorse and encourage the production of motion pictures and to protect the commercial interest of films produced in India. Before registering a title, the association usually verifies the registration of same or deceptively similar title with other associations. However such registration has no effect on any legal proceedings, it only establishes precedence in the adoption title.

Under Indian Copyright Act, protection is conferred on literary works, dramatic works, musical works, artistic works, cinematograph films and sound recording but not to titles alone. Thus copying of a title alone and not the plot of the movie, the characters, songs etc does not fall under the ambit of copyright protection. It is common, rather it is imperative, to give title to literary or entertainment works. The literary work produced by the author or the work of entertainment produced by a producer needs a name. It is only then that such work would be identified. The term ‘literary title’ is used to encompass the titles of books, periodicals, newspapers, plays, motion pictures, television series, songs, phonograph records, cartoon features and the like.[1]

Movie titles in India may be registered under Class 41 of the Trademarks Act 1999. Movie titles can be bifurcated into two heads, that is, titles of series of movies, like for instance ‘Munna bhai MBBS’ and ‘Lage raho munnabhai’ and title of a single movie. In case of a single movie title, it must be established that the title has acquired secondary meaning amongst the public at large. The test of secondary meaning for literary titles is basically to determine whether in the minds of a significant number of consumers, the title in question is allied with a single source of the literary work.

In Kanungo Media (P) Ltd. v. Rgv Film Factory And Ors.[2] Kanungo media had produced a Bengali documentary movie titled Nisshabd, which had won numerous awards in various significant film festivals but was not released commercially. The plaintiff challenged the use of their highly acclaimed film title Nisshabd by the defendant for its upcoming Bollywood movie. The Court held that while the title of a literary work could be protected under the trademark law, in order to prove likelihood of confusion, it would be vital to establish consumer recognition and secondary meaning. The Court denied the relief of injunction based on the fact that the plaintiff’s film has not acquired secondary meaning. Also plaintiff approached the court very late after huge expenses had been made by defendant in advertising, promoting the movie and other marketing strategies and thus there was delay in filing the suit.

In Biswaroop Roy Choudhary v. Karan Johar[3] , Producer Biswaroop Roy filed a suit in the High Court seeking permanent injunction to restrain Karan Johar from using the title “Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna”. The title had been filed by Karan Johar with the Association of Motion Pictures and TV Program Producers and the Film and Television Producers Guild of India also. The court dismissed the petition on the grounds that where words or phrases in common parlance are sought to be used with exclusivity, the Court should take care to determine which of the parties has ended its journey or traversed appreciably longer way in the use of such words as a trademark or as a title.[4]

In the case of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Anr v. Harinder Kohli and Ors.[5], the plaintiffs of the registered Trademark ‘HARRY POTTER’ alleged infringement of Trademark and sought a permanent injunction from the use of the title ‘Hari Puttar’, which was registered with Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association and the Guild and was ready for commercial release. The Court dismissed the case due to the fact that the Harry Potter films meet the entertainment needs of an exclusive audience who can distinguish between films based on a Harry Potter book and a film which is a Punjabi comedy. Confusion of Hari Puttar with the plaintiff’s popular trademark Harry Potter was unlikely and also on grounds of delay.

It is thus clear from the above case decisions of the court that by mere registering a movie title either with any of the independent trade associations or as a trademark with the Registry may not be enough of the protection in title rights. Even though registering it is advisable but in order to establish one’s right over the title it is imperative that consumer recognition and secondary meaning is adduced to it. In order to do that, one has to actually use the trademark. Even if the work has not been released, a sufficient amount of pre-release publicity of the title may cause a title to acquire recognition sufficient for protection. Relevant evidence from which secondary meaning for a literary title may be inferred as a question of fact include: (1) the length and continuity of use; (2) the extent of advertising and promotion and the amount of money spent; (3) the sales figures on purchases or admissions and the number of people who bought or viewed plaintiff’s work; and (4) the closeness of the geographical and product markets of plaintiff and defendant.[6] Also, delayed approach to the court to enforce one’s right in the titles can also be of loss to the plaintiff.

Any cinematographic work is identified by its title for decades. People conceptualize the idea behind the work by associating it with the title and hence it is becoming a perquisite to register it in order to protect and preserve the commercial interest in the film. The registration not only provides exclusive right over the title but also restrains the unauthorized use or adoption by another.

[1] McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition, Third Edition (1995) Vol. I

[2] 138 (2007) DLT 312

[3] 131 (2006) DLT 458, 2006 (33) PTC 381 Del

[4] Supra

[5] 2008(38)PTC185(Del)

[6] Kanungo Media (P) Ltd. vs Rgv Film Factory And Ors. 138 (2007) DLT 312

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