Holy Verse, Legal Verses; The Copyright Dilemma Of Sacred Texts

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The interplay between intellectual property rights and religious scriptures has long been a contentious realm, shrouded in limited scholarly discourse and authoritative pronouncements.
India Intellectual Property
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The interplay between intellectual property rights and religious scriptures has long been a contentious realm, shrouded in limited scholarly discourse and authoritative pronouncements. This article embarks on an exploration of the profound complexities and legal intricacies entwined with the copyright of sacred texts, inspired by the recent Delhi High Court ruling in the case of Bhaktivedanta Book Trust v. Bhagvatam.in. This seminal judgement heralds a new era, inviting a more profound contemplation of the copyright status of religious scriptures under the venerable Indian Copyright Act of 1957.

The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust Case

On September 21, 2023, the esteemed Delhi High Court bestowed an interim award in the case of Bhaktivedanta Book Trust v. Bhagvatam.in. The venerable Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, established by the revered Srila Prabhupada, initiated an injunction suit against a multitude of defendants for the unauthorized reproduction of its cherished copyrighted works. The trust fervently contended that its literary treasures, which elucidate and distil intricate religious concepts, were being disseminated without consent over various social media platforms.
The court sagely acknowledged that while original religious scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita reside within the public domain and elude the grasp of copyright, adaptations and transformative works derived from these sacred texts are indeed eligible for copyright protection. The court's judgement underscored that the trust's compositions, which weave in the profound teachings of Srila Prabhupada, were unmistakably transformative and, thus, merited the sanctuary of copyright. This landmark ruling establishes a pivotal precedent for discerning the application of copyright law to religious texts.

Theoretical Perspectives

  1. Economics Theory: Economics theory posits that the granting of exclusive rights serves as a catalyst for innovation by bestowing financial rewards upon creators. However, when this theory is transposed onto the realm of religious scriptures, it encounters a plethora of challenges. Religious organizations frequently pursue copyright protection not with the intent of reaping financial gains, but rather to safeguard the sanctity of their doctrines and avert unauthorized exegeses. This protective posture, while aiming to uphold doctrinal purity, can inadvertently foster censorship instead of nurturing innovation. For example, in Hubbard v. Vosper, the Church of Scientology used copyright claims to prevent the publication of a book that revealed its confidential doctrines, aiming to maintain secrecy rather than promote innovation. Similarly, in Zac Poonen v. Hidden Treasure Literature, a religious group attempted to use copyright to suppress changes made to its sacred songs. The court ruled that the changes were a distinct interpretation, highlighting that copyright should not be used to stifle public access and critique. These cases demonstrate how copyright can be used by religious groups to control narratives and suppress dissent, contradicting the economic theory's emphasis on promoting societal benefits through innovation and free expression.
  2. Locke's Labour Theory: John Locke's labor theory suggests that property rights stem from the labor invested in creating a work. However, religious scriptures, considered divine and eternal, challenge this theory as they're attributed to a higher power, not a human author. Indian courts, like in Rupendra Kashyap v. Jiwan Publishing House Pvt. Ltd, define ‘author' strictly as a natural person, excluding divine authorship from copyright protection. Consequently, religious scriptures don't fit Locke's framework, as they lack human authors. This was affirmed in the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust case, where transformative works based on scriptures, not the scriptures themselves, were considered.

Doctrinal Changes

  1. Merger Doctrine: This doctrine serves as a crucial principle within copyright law, delineating the boundaries between ideas and their expressions. Illustrated in cases such as Chancellor Masters of Oxford v. Narendra Publishing House, it asserts that when idea and expression intertwine inseparably, copyright protection becomes untenable.
    Religious scriptures' need for precise expression challenges copyright. The Merger Doctrine recognizes this, preventing copyright claims. It upholds a balance between innovation and ownership, especially in religious texts.
  2. Fair Use Doctrine: The Fair Use Doctrine, a cornerstone of copyright law, permits the limited use of copyrighted material without prior consent, notably for purposes such as teaching or commentary. In the seminal case of Folsom v. Marsh, the judiciary established that determining fair use entails a nuanced examination of factors including the purpose of use, nature of the work, amount of material borrowed, and market effects.

In the US, fair use offers broad flexibility, but in India, ‘fair dealing' is narrower, especially concerning religious texts. The Indian judiciary, exemplified by the interpretation in Chancellor Masters, has underscored that religious uses do not qualify under the fair dealing provision. This judicial stance constrains the latitude of religious organizations in invoking fair use for their scriptures, reinforcing a more stringent regulatory framework.

Hence, while fair use may present an avenue for selective utilization of copyrighted material, its applicability within religious contexts is subject to distinct limitations, particularly within the legal framework of jurisdictions like India.


The legal terrain enveloping the copyright of religious scriptures is a labyrinth of intricacies. The Bhaktivedanta trust judgement illuminates the notion that, while original scriptures dwell within the public domain, transformative works emanating from them are eligible for copyright protection. Yes, the imposition of copyright laws upon sacred texts conjured theoretical and doctrinal quandaries that challenge the very bedrock of intellectual property rights. As the confluence of religious content and copyright law continues its evolution, it becomes very important to harmonize the safeguarding of doctrinal purty with the cherished principles of free expression and unfettered public access.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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