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Thursday, January 20, 2022

‘3 Idiots’ and the morality of numbers

Bollywood’s latest “message laden” script is certainly big on numbers. Within the first week alone,it grossed 175 crores...

Written by Shamnad Basheer |
January 7, 2010 1:34:56 am

Bollywood’s latest “message laden” script is certainly big on numbers. Within the first week alone,it grossed 175 crores! I speak of 3 Idiots,a brilliantly entertaining movie that captures the decay of the Indian educational system,where rote learning is often preferred over critical thinking; pragmatism over principles and convention over creativity. The success of the movie owes to an intelligent script that celebrates the innovator,the maverick and anyone else bold enough to pursue their passions against all odds. But I digress from my numbers’ thesis.

Note that the movies’ title contains the number “3”. And the book on which it is based (“5 Point Someone”) sports the number “5”. Most interestingly perhaps,the producers of the movie claim that the book contributes no more than 5 per cent to the movie. The author,Chetan Bhagat disagrees,claiming his contribution to be 70 per cent. If only judges were this masterful at numbers and percentages,copyright disputes might have been far easier to crack. But first,a bit of background:

1. Bhagat entered into a contract with the production house (Vinod Chopra Films Pvt Ltd),under which he assigned all rights in any film adaptation to them.

2. As consideration,Bhagat received a certain sum of money,which he admits. In any case,the dispute is not about the money.

3. Although,as contractually promised,the credits right at the end of the film do mention the fact that the movie is based on the book by Bhagat,it crams up the attribution (“Based on The Novel Five Point Someone By Chetan Bhagat”) in one line,whereas the contract stretches out the entire attribution to 3 lines.

Bhagat could therefore argue that even contractually,the form of placement was not complied with. This is buttressed by the fact that the credit at the end of the movie was so fleeting that even his mother missed it. Contrast this with the fact that the script writer,Abhijat Joshi was credited right at the start of the movie.

Anyway,what Bhagat appears to be really “hurt” about is the producers’ claim that the movie contained no more than 5 per cent of his book. Fortunately,this unfair treatment meted out to him is not just objectionable from a moral standpoint,but is actionable under the law.

Having read the book and watched the movie,my view is that the script borrows significant amounts of copyrightable elements from the book,including the main theme,the various plots and most of the characters therein,including some dialogues. The fact that some new scenes and sub plots were added afresh to the movie does not detract from the fact that significant portions of the book were copied onto the script in the first place.

Therefore,Bhagat is legitimately entitled to be treated as a joint author of this script. Section 57 of the Indian copyright act deals with what are commonly termed as “moral rights” and vests every author with the right to insist that their works be attributed to them. And this right exists independent of the “economic” right to exploit the work. In other words,even if the economic rights are assigned away (as was the case here),the moral right of attribution continues to vest with the author.

One might even argue that such rights were brought into our copyright regime to prevent precisely the kind of harm that this case throws up i.e. a wily production house that buys out an author economically and then attempts to obliterate his status as author altogether!

Bhagat must therefore take a principled stand on this issue and pursue the matter without backing down,not just for himself,but for every small artist who end up getting a raw deal from crafty producers. It could end up cleansing some of the sharp practices that Bollywood has become culturally attuned to now.

Bhagat must sue in a court of law,demanding rightful attribution and appropriate damages. It helps his case that Indian courts have traditionally been very supportive of the moral rights of authors (Amar Nath Sehgal vs UOI).

Of course,it would be far better if the film-makers apologise to Bhagat and settle the matter in a fair manner. After all,even they understand that morality is not really about numbers.

The writer is the Ministry of HRD Professor of IP Law at the National University Of Juridical Sciences (NUJS),Kolkata

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