A Durga Puja committee at the Kolkata suburb of Salt Lake used a recreation of Hogwarts Castle at its Harry Potter pandal, but without permission from J.K. Rowling, author of the Potter books. On behalf of Rowling, Warner Bros and Penguin India filed a case in the Delhi high court against the committee, demanding that the defendants— who were served a 394-page summons—either cough up Rs2 million or dismantle the pandal. The court allowed the Hogwarts version to remain standing until 26 October, but ordered the defendants to seek Rowling’s permission before raising similar structures in the future.
The issue could have been amicably settled, irrespective of whether the puja committee flouted the law innocently or as a culpable breach of copyright law. It could have been innocent, since not every imitator of the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal in such cases faces legal action.
Designer Suneet Varma’s anger against Aki Narula because the latter allegedly used a design from Varma’s Fall 2003 collection to dress Rani Mukherjee in the film, Bunty aur Babli, seems to be justified. One explanation offered by Narula was that when he bought the item—in an unbranded form at a wayside store—he was unaware it was another designer’s creation. In other words, the purchase was made in good faith. A second explanation given was that the allegedly copied item was, in fact, quite different from the original. Such evaluation is subjective and can stir controversy. (But patent and copyright laws explicitly provide that copying an original, in a manner which is “identical or deceptively similar”—that is, with superficial differences, wilfully, as a ploy to circumvent the legal provisions—would be a violation.)
To prevent copying of the finer details of their creations, celebrity designers prefer not to display them publicly. So, other designers may not always be aware that they are actually copying. This makes any claim about an original creation legally contestable. Unless the original designer can legally establish beyond reasonable doubt that what has allegedly been copied is in fact original, he will not have much of a case.
It is, thus, best to obtain proprietary rights. Intellectual property rights are usually associated with civil law. But those who fear that monetary compensation under civil law is neither a sufficient deterrent nor an adequate safeguard of commercial interests, can issue a cautionary warning in a public notice that the aggrieved party can seek recourse to criminal action.
Piracy of literary or artistic work, including fashion, is tantamount to theft. This has to be firmly checked through better law enforcement. And legal remedies have to be speedier, since the culprit should not commercially get away with spoils that, in all fairness, should go to the hapless victim—the original designer.
Kaavya Viswanathan’s critically acclaimed work, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, led to intense controversy more on account of its extent of plagiarism than what it revealed. (She reportedly copied much of her 40 passages from Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, both written by Megan McCafferty.) It made the latter lock horns with the publishers and content packagers of Viswanathan’s book—which was recalled after litigation. Many young writers with promising talent would have taken a cue from the episode. Publishers, and trade and industry associations can play a pivotal role by educating the industry on the ethics and ill-effects of such infringements and in pursuing quicker justice. The Copyright Act of 1957 is equipped enough, but seems to lack teeth. Law enforcement is neither sufficiently vigilant nor strong enough to bring the culprits to book.
V.B.N. Ram retired as a senior executive in the corporate sector. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org