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Smile, you are on camera!

Every celebrity would agree when we say that stardom comes at a price. Their right to privacy is always threatened with the constant paparazzi encroaching upon their personal lives. Unauthorized photography often results in tabloid and defamatory reports in the media, which can sometimes scar the celebrity’s life forever. From sports persons to movie stars to politicians to Princes and Princesses- they are all celebrities.

The Indian Copyright Act, 1957 defines a ‘performer’ in Section 2(qq). It includes ‘an actor, singer, musician, dancer, acrobat, juggler, conjurer, snake charmer, a person delivering a lecture or any other person who makes a performance’.

A celebrity is licensable for commercial benefits since his public image is a monetary asset for himself. But how are his rights protected? The first resort a celebrity would take would be passing off (in case of an unregistered trademark) or an infringement action (in case of a registered trademark). With respect to the performer’s rights, on June 8, 2012, an amendment was passed in the Indian Copyright Act. Section 38 provides the rights of the performers. A performer who appears in any performance has a right over such performance until fifty years from the beginning of the calendar year next following the year in which the performance is made. Further, a person would be deemed to have infringed the performer’s rights if he makes a sound/visual recording with his consent or broadcasts it without permission. Hence, the performer has a right to restrain or claim damages in respect of any distortion, mutilation, or other modification of his performance that would be prejudicial to his reputation. Sadly, the rights of the extras in films cannot be protected since they are not covered under the definition of a performer.

Once a performer gives valid consent for the incorporation of his performance in a film, he cannot be able to object to the enjoyment by the film’s Producer of his performer’s right in it. But there are two important limitations here though. One is that there is no statute that prohibits a performer from entering into an agreement which states that he could object to the producer enjoying his performer’s rights in the film. Next, the Producer’s enjoyment of the performer’s right in the film is limited to the film, so the Producer would not be able to have the benefit of the performer’s right for the purpose of out-film use such as in ring tones or public performances, which is used for the promotion of his film. Section 13 (4) provides that separate creative components within a film are copyrightable.

In Milder v Ford Motor Co & Others (1988) 849 F.2d 460 (9th Cir), the advertising company wanted to use a song by Bette Milder in a commercial for Ford cars. The license for the song itself was accepted but Milder turned down the request for permission to use the song in her version. The Agency then contacted Ula Hedwig, a singer who had been a back-up vocalist for Milder and asked her to sing the song under the instructions ‘to sound as much as possible like the Bette Milder record’. Milder sued when the commercial was aired on television. The defendants argued that this was in accordance with Section 3344 of the Civil Code since they had not used the ‘name, voice, signature, photograph or likeness’ of Milder rather they had used the voice of Ula Hedwig. The court held that the defendants were liable since by using a sound alike, they had clearly sought a commercial association with an attribute of Milder’s identity. This was held as the right of publicity, that grants entertainers or public figures exclusive control over the commercial exploitation of their names and other aspects relating to them.

In India, there is a need for such legislation in order to protect the rights of a performer and his different shades. With the advent of technology, now any film star’s image can be created by animation and be reproduced in unauthorized usage in film footage. Another burning question left unanswered in India is whether the author has copyright protection over digitally made graphics or cartoons. If the digital image is of a well-known personality, is there a conflict between the author’s right in his creation and the actor’s right in his image.

In India, it is only through litigation that the celebrity’s rights are protected. A heavy amount of damages have been awarded to the celebrities who have won such suits. But there is an urgent need for the legislature to recognize the astounding gaps in the Copyright Act and recognize the commercial and moral rights needed to protect the image of the celebrities.

About the Author: Ms. Madhuri Iyer, Trade Mark Attorney at Khurana & Khurana and can be reached at [email protected]

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