Recently, an issue came up before the Supreme Court on copyrightability of a movie title Krishika Lulla v. Shyam Vithalrao Devkatta. [Criminal Appeal No. 258/259 of 2013]

The respondent, Shyam, claimed copyright in a synopsis of a story along with the title DESI BOYS which was also registered with the Film Writers Association. Further, the respondent had sent the synopsis along with the title to a film producer by email through his friend. Thus, it was by no means the entire story with all the dialogues. Further, the said friend of his received no reply, but to their surprise, they saw promos of a movie bearing the title DESI BOYZ i.e. ‘S’ in boys being replaced with ‘Z’. Consequently, Shyam proceeded to file a police complaint for infringement of copyright in the title - DESI BOYS.

As per Section 13 of the Indian Copyright Act, 1957, copyright, amongst others, subsists in original literary works. Thus, the main issue for determination was whether the respondent had copyright in the title DESI BOYS. The Court observed a title by itself is in the nature of a name of a work and is not complete by itself, without the work. Further, it was observed that, in the first place, a title does not qualify for being described as "work". It is incomplete in itself and refers to the work that follows. Secondly, the combination of the two words DESI and BOYS cannot be said to have anything original in it. They are extremely common place words in India to qualify as a literary work under the copyright law.

The court referred to the Oxford English Dictionary which defines the word 'literary' as "concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, especially of the kind valued for quality of form". Thus, the mere use of common words cannot qualify for being described as 'literary'.

The court further referred to Francis Day & Hunter Ltd. v. Twentieth Century Fox Corporation Ltd. and Ors. reported in AIR 1940 Privy Council 55, wherein the Privy Council considered the infringement of copyright in the title of a song by its adoption for the title of a film.

The Privy Council observed:-

“....As a rule a title does not involve literary composition, and is not sufficiently substantial to justify a claim to protection. That statement does not mean that in particular cases a title may not be on so extensive a scale, and of so important a character, as to be a proper subject of protection against being copied. As Jessel M.R. said in Dicks v. Yates, there might be copyright in a title "as, for instance, in a whole page of title or something of that kind requiring invention.”

Recently, the Madras High Court considered various earlier decisions and held that the words ‘Raja Rani’ are words of common parlance which denote ‘the king or the queen’ and are not copyrightable. 

Applying the above observations to the present case, it was held that the title DESI BOYS merely comprised common words and they were too unsubstantial a literary content to constitute an infringement.