As a popular saying goes, first impression is the last impression - when it comes to movies what better for a first impression than a striking title. A title that is catchy and unique finds an instant place in the minds of the audience. Thus, it is one of the vital assets of the movie, which racks up the attention of the public. This has invariably become a subject matter of dispute in the entertainment industry.

The customary practice followed by the majority of film producers is registering the plot and title with the film associations functioning as registered societies such as The Indian Motion Picture Producers' Association (IMPPA); the Film and Television Producers' Guild of India or the Association of Motion Pictures and Television Programme Producers (AMPTPP). Although this ensures protection of the movie plot, it does not safeguard the title of the movie from being used by another filmmaker.

Recently, in Krishika Lulla and Ors. vs. Shyam Vithalrao Devkutta and Ors., the Supreme Court held that copyrights do not subsist in the titles of literary works, including movies. Protection for the same can be granted only by trademarks. The factual matrix of the case is as such- the respondents claimed having written a synopsis with the title 'Desi Boys' which was circulated via email to two other persons. After the movie 'Desi Boyz' released, the respondents bought a suit against the appellants for copyright infringement. The issue before the Court was whether the respondents had a copyright in the title of the movie. The Court laid down that as per Section 13 of the Copyright Act, 1957[1], titles cannot be considered as 'works' for the purpose of copyrights.

In various instances, filmmakers use the names of old blockbuster movie to ride on its popularity and goodwill. The case of Sholay Media and Entertainment Pvt Ltd. v. Parag M. Sanghavi, is an important decision in this regard. The Court granted trademark protection for title of the famous 1975 movie 'Sholay' along with the names of character 'Gabbar' and 'Gabbar Singh'. These trademark protections led to the change of title of 'Ram Gopal Verma ki Sholay' to 'Ram Gopal Verma ki Aag'. It was stated that since 'Sholay' had acquired the cult status amongst movies, the defendants were refrained from using trademarks that were identical or deceptively similar to that of the plaintiffs.

As per the Nice Classification of trademarks that is followed in India, movie titles may be registered as a service mark under class 41 of Schedule 4 of the Indian Trademarks Act, 1999.  Film titles can be demarcated in two categories viz. titles of a series of movies, for instance the 'Dhoom & Dhoom 2' series and title of a single movie. For the latter, it must be established that the title has acquired a reputation and a secondary meaning amongst the public at large. Secondary meaning simply means that an average movie goer associates the title to the filmmaker, production house, etc. and there would be a likelihood of confusion in the mind of such person if the title is used by another person for a different film.

Copyright protects the expression of an idea but a mere idea cannot be covered under the Copyright Act. Titles of books, songs, movies and other copyrightable works although appear to be protectable under copyright given their nature of works; yet are not due to the lack of requisite creativity. Moreover, copyrights protect the integrity of creative works of authorship, and titles do not warrant such a protection. This has now gained a status of a settled principle of jurisprudence under the Indian Law.

[1] Section 13- Works in which copyright subsists.- (1) Subject to the provisions of this section and the other provisions of this Act, copyright shall subsist throughout India in the following classes of works, that is to say,-

(a) original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works;

(b) cinematograph films; and

(c) sound recording.

(2) Copyright shall not subsist in any work specified in sub-section (1), other than a work to which the provisions of section 40 or section 41 apply, unless,-

(i) in the case of a published work, the work is first published in India, or where the work is first published outside India, the author is at the date of such publication, or in a case where the author was dead at that date, was at the time of his death, a citizen of India;

(ii) in the case of an unpublished work other than work of architecture, the author is at the date of the making of the work a citizen of India or domiciled in India; and

(iii) in the case of a work of architecture, the work is located in India.

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