India: Indian Court Upholds the Moral Rights of the Author

Last Updated: 22 December 2005
Article by Manisha Singh

Preface

Most of the debate on the rights of the author revolves around the economic rights and consequently, the moral rights have been overshadowed. Under the Indian Copyright law, the author has a life long, exclusive right to (a) claim the authorship of the work (b) to restrain or claim damages in respect of any distortion, mutilation, modification or other act in relation to the work which is done before the expiration of the term of copyright, is such distortion etc would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation. Even after parting away with the economic rights, the author does not lose the moral rights over the work.

Moral rights are seldom a matter of legal dispute. One such rare but far reaching case is Amar Nath Sehgal V. Union of India & Anr 2005 (30) PTC 253

Factual Background

Mr. Amar Nath Sehgal is the world-renowned sculpturist and has been conferred with several awards for his beautiful creations and contribution to the Indian heritage. In the year 1957, the Government of India commissioned Mr. Sehgal for the creating bronze mural for the most prominent International Convention Hall in the Capital of the Country. The Bronze sculpture of about 140ft. span and 40ft. sweep took five years to complete and was placed on the wall of the Lobby in the Convention hall. This embellishment on a national architecture became a part of the Indian art heritage.

The background of the present dispute was set in the year 1979 when government pulled down the sculpture from the walls of ‘Vigyan Bhawan’ and dumped it in the storeroom. When Mr. Sehgal came to know of this ill treatment, he made representations to the government authorities for restoration of the mural. Unfortunately, all his pleas fell on deaf ears. Aggrieved by the apathy of the government officials, Mr. Seghal filed a petition in the Delhi High Court for recognition and enforcement of his rights on the mural.

Contentions of the parties

Mr. Seghal contended that the mural created by him was a part of the national heritage and hence was valuable not only for him but for the entire country. The mutilation of the work was prejudicial to his reputation as it reduced the volume of the corpus of his work. He further argued that where the right to integrity is violated, the remedy is not limited to injunction or damages. The author has the right to preserve the mutilated work as well. Mr. Sehgal contended that his suit was not barred by limitation as his moral rights subsist throughout his life. All through the interposing period of 13 years, he was seeking administrative relief.

Mr. Sehgal prayed for the relief of permanent injunction for restraining Union of India (hereinafter referred to as UOI) from further distorting or mutilating the mural and a sum of Rs. 50 lac as compensation for humiliation, hurt, injury and loss of reputation caused to him. Mr. Sehgal also prayed for a decree of delivery-up, directing UOI to return the mural to him and also bear the cost of such restoration.

UOI, on the other hand, argued that it was the owner of the mural and had the right to consign the work to the storeroom. The mural was taken from the Mr. Sehgal for a good consideration and therefore, he had no right over the mural. Also the legal action was barred by limitation as the suit was filed after a period of 13 years from the date when cause of action arose.

Issues for determination

The main issues for determination before the Court were (a) whether the suit was barred by limitation (b) whether Mr. Sehgal had moral right over the mural even when the copyright vested with the UOI (c) Has UOI infringed moral rights of Mr. Sehgal (d) whether Mr. Sehgal has suffered any damage (e) Relief.

Decision

On the question as to whether the suit was barred by limitation, the Court ruled that the correspondence between UOI and Mr. Sehgal contain the acknowledgement by the former of the right of the latter over the mural and therefore the suit is not barred by limitation. The Court examined at length the national and the international framework for protection of the moral rights of the Author. The Court was of the opinion that it is a narrow view the derogatory treatment of the creative work would mean deletion to, distortion, mutilation or modification to, or the use of the work in setting which is entirely inappropriate. The broad view is that mutilation is nothing but the destruction of the work as to render it imperfect and is therefore prejudicial to the reputation of the author.

Recognizing the moral rights of the Mr. Sehgal over the Mural, Pradeep Nandrajog J. ruled:

"mural whatever be its form today is too precious to be reduced to scrap and languish in the warehouse of the Government of India. It is only Mr. Sehgal who has the right to recreate his work and therefore has the right to receive the broken down mural. He also has the right to be compensated for the loss of reputation, honor and mental injury due to the offending acts of UOI".

The Court passed mandatory injunction against the UOI directing it to return the mural to Mr. Sehgal within two weeks from the date of judgment. Court passed a declaration transferring all the rights over the mural from UOI to Mr. Sehgal and an absolute right to recreate the mural and sell the same. The Court also granted damages to the tune of Rs.5 lacs and cost of suit to Mr. Sehgal against UOI.

Comments

The Court has given a wide construction to the moral rights of the author under the copyright law. The Statute only provides for the grant of injunction and damages in cases where any distortion, mutilation, modification or other act in relation to the work if such distortion etc would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation. Court has read into the forgoing provision the ‘right of the author to receive the copyrighted work for the purposes of restoration and sell it’. The ratio of the case is establishes the proposition that ‘where the owner (not being the author) of the copyright work, treats the work in a manner that is prejudicial to the reputation and honor of the author, the Court may transfer all rights over the work to the author’.

© Lex Orbis 2005

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