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Examining The Position Of Idea-Expression Dichotomy vis-á-vis R. G. Anand vs Delux Films

The general rule of Copyright, as expressed through the principle of idea-expression dichotomy, is that the expression of an idea, and not the idea itself, is the subject matter of copyright protection. Borrowing from the Natural Rights perspective or Lockean justification of intellectual property rights, ideas are a public good and form the ‘common pool’ [1]. It is only when someone adds an expression to it, through their initiative, intellect and industry, that they are entitled to hold it as property. Though this approach seems fairly elementary, issues arise when the context and similarity thereof is to be determined with respect to the expression. The leading case, in this regard, is that of R .G. Anand vs. Delux Films [2].


In this case, the plaintiff — a playwright, dramatist and producer of stage plays — wrote the play ‘Hum Hindustani’ in 1953. The play proved to be popular and the defendant requested the appellant to supply a copy of the play so that he could consider the desirability of making, a film on it in 1955. However, there was no further transaction to this end. In 1956, the defendant produced a motion picture, ‘New Delhi’. The plaintiff filed a suit alleging that the film was based entirely upon the play and thus, committed an act of piracy as to result in the violation of copyright.


The trial court raised several issues and came to the conclusion that the appellant was the owner of the copyright in 'Hum Hindustani' but there was no violation of copyright. Thereafter, the appellant filed an appeal in the Delhi High Court, where the Division Bench upheld the decree dismissing the appellant's suit. Since there was no decided case of this Court on the point, the Supreme Court discussed the law on the subject to appreciate the argument of both parties.

The significant findings and outcomes of the Supreme Court are as follows:

1. The court pointed out that mere similarities by themselves are not sufficient to raise an inference of colourable imitation. Even still, the court went through the script of the play and the film and were inclined to conclude that dissimilarities go to show that they tar outweigh the effect of the similarities mentioned in the plaint. On examining the similarities mentioned by the plaintiff they were held to be trifling and trivial, touching insignificant points and did not appear to be of a substantial nature. The court, for instance, pointed out that the mere fact that the name of the Madrasi father was Subramaniam in both the film and the play, is hardly of any significance because the name of a particular person cannot be the subject matter of copyright because these are common names.

2. It was further stated by the court, that where the sources of two expressions are common, similarities are bound to occur in them. In such cases, the courts should determine whether or not the similarities are on fundamental or substantial aspects of the mode of expression adopted in the copyrighted work. If the defendant’s work is nothing but a literal limitation of the copyrighted work with some variations here and there it would amount to violation of the copyright. In other words, in order to be actionable the copy must be a substantial and material one which at once leads to the conclusion that the defendant is guilty of an act of piracy. However, where apart from the similarities appearing in the two works which are incidental, there are also material and broad dissimilarities which negate the intention to copy the original work, no infringement of the copyright comes into existence.

3. It was accepted, undoubtedly, that the defendant was aware of the story contained in the play and a part of the film was, to some extent, inspired by the play. But the definite case of the defendant was also that he was in search of story based on provincialism and the play may have provided the opportunity to produce his film — though with a different story, theme, characterisation and climaxes. The court found that the treatment of the film and the manner of its presentation on screen was quite different from the one written by the plaintiff at the stage i.e. the expression was different. It is well settled that an idea cannot be a subject matter of copyright, and consequently, the court rejected copyright infringement on the ground that provincialism was the subject matter of the film, as was in the play. The court thus concluded, that on a close and careful comparison of the play and the picture except for the central idea — provincialism, which is not protected by copyright —the picture is materially different from the play.

4. The court also dealt with the ‘lay-man observer test’. Applying it to the instant matter, the court was satisfied, after seeing the play and the film, that no prudent person would get the impression that the film appears to be a copy of the original play. The test simply implies that if a lay-man were to watch to the two works, and not perceive one to be a copy of another, then there existed no infringement in the situation. This sets out an intrinsic test for determining copyright violation i.e whether or not the reader, spectator or the viewer after having read or seen both the works is clearly of the opinion and gets an unmistakable impression that the subsequent work appears to be a copy of the original. This was a significant outcome as it set the tone for the application of a threshold, in form of this test, for the cases to come.


This judgement is a landmark decision in the area of Indian Copyright Law and postulated, with clarity, that copyright protection does not extend to mere ideas. It clarified various aspects of the idea-expression dichotomy, thereby clarifying its application in Indian law. The concept of ‘substantial’ similarity, establishes a fundamental principle to be determined by courts. The layman observer test also aids in determining the allegation of copyright infringement. One such recent case in which the judgement was applied is that of Mansoob Haider vs. Yashraj Films Pvt. Ltd [3], where the Court had to decide whether the Bollywood movie, ‘Dhoom 3,’ was an infringement of the plaintiff’s copyright in the script ‘Once'. The Bombay High Court judgment re-affirmed the principles laid out in the R.G. Anand case.

The relevance of the judgment lies in its very reasoning and inference. It is such that it protects the original work of authors where due, which is what the copyright legislation intends to do, but also creates space for dissemination of work into the public. The principles formulated strike a balance to combat the issue of infringement, while ensuring that mere ideas can be held as property by none.


[1] Attas D. (2008), Lockean Justifications of Intellectual Property,Intellectual Property and Theories of Justice, pp 29-56

[2] R .G . Anand vs. M/S Delux Films & Ors — 1978 SCC (4) 118

[3] Mansoob Haider vs. Yashraj Films Pvt. Ltd — Suit 219/2014, Bombay High Court

Submitted by:

Manvee Kumar Saidha,

School of law, Christ (Deemed) University.

(Images used for representative purpose only)


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