Betaal – Netflix original series copyright court case simplified
Netflix series Betaal produced by Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment recently got into a controversy after two Marathi screenwriters pulled them into the court with claims that that the series ‘Betaal’ was copied from their original Marathi film script them titled ‘Vetaal’.
Here is a gist of the court case in a simplified format without a lot of legal jargon. Click here for a simplified gist of the Betaal court case. The article is divided into various questions and you can skip ahead to any particular question that you want to be answered.
Note – This is a highly simplified article and is intended to be a general information source and not an authoritative legal article. For an authoritative article visit Bar and Bench website.
What is copyright how is it protected?
Imagine that you woke up at 3 am in the morning and wrote down quite a fabulous story. Now there are many different things that you can do with this story.
You can either write a book out of it or ask your filmmaker friend to make a move out of it. Or, you may even sell the story to some other person who then gets to decide what to do with it.
So, once you have created a tangible copy of an imagined idea in a story form, you get all these options or legal rights with regards to your idea.
This bundle of various options of legal rights that a creator of such a tangible copy of an idea is called having a copyright in the tangible copy.
In the above example, imagine that you decide to post the story you have written on Instagram.
However, before you can bask in the glory of all the likes and comments that your post got, you realise that some random guy has copied your entire story or parts of your story and posted it on his profile as his own writing.
This action of copying of an original story or majority parts of the original story is called copyright infringement.
What are Marathi Writers claims in Betaal case?
Marathi screenplay writers Sameer Wadekar and Mahesh Goswami claimed that they had written a Marathi film titled ‘Vetaal’ back in 2013-14.
They further say that after watching the trailer of Netlfix series ‘Betaal’ released on May 5, 2020, they realised that the writing of Betaal had 13 similarities with their original script of Vetaal.
What the heck is an interim relief?
Imagine two kids get into a quarrel as to who got their hands the TV remote first.
When you approach your mother with the dispute, she takes the remote and says that the TV remains turned off until the dispute is resolved.
Interim relief is something similar but slightly more complex. In the Betaal case, Marathi writers asked the court to stop the release of the Betaal series on Netflix till it is proved in the court that the series is copied from the original Marathi screenplay or not.
What is the point of granting interim relief?
Imagine you spend lakhs of rupees and work day and night for months to build a car model that runs on solar power.
Now, before you could sell the model to a manufacturing company, you spot a car-sale advertise in the newspaper with your design in the photo.
You obviously file a case against the company in the court but by the time the court gives its judgment, the other company has made loads of money selling hundreds of cars made with your design. Even if you win the case, the loss has already been done.
This is where interim relief comes in. When filing a case in the court you can ask the court to stop the other company from selling their cars until you prove or fail to prove that your design was stolen by that other company to protect yourself from the losses.
Why did the court not grant interim relief in Betaal case?
First of all the Marathi screenwriters failed to prove in court that Netflix could have gotten their hands on the original screenplay of Vetaal. Which meant the probability of copying the original script lowers.
Secondly, the Marathi screenwriters failed to explain as to why they filed a case in May 2020, just before the release, when the story of Betaal was publicly declared in all major newspapers in July 2019. This made the court question the intention behind filing the case with such delay.
Lastly, the court said that the concept of Viram-Vetal is popular in Indian folklore and hence the idea of making a series out of it could occur to anyone without having to read the Marathi screenwriters’ original script.
On these grounds, the court said that the probability of copyright infringement was low.
Similarly, the Marathi screenwriters had only written a script of while Netflix and Red Chillies had made an entire series on Betaal by expending lots of money and time and had also marketed its release.
Therefore, if the court had stopped the release of Betaal, Netflix and Red Chillies would have incurred huge losses. Whereas, even if the series was released, the Marathi screenwriters would not have faced losses of equivalent grandeur.
Hence, the court did not the grant interim relief of stopping the release of Betaal to the Marathi screenwriters.
Does it mean copyright infringement did not occur?
Interim relief is only an intermediate step in court proceedings.
The court did not stop the release of Betaal on Netflix only because the losses that Netflix and Red Chillies would incur were not proportionate to the proof that Marathi screenwriters presented about copyright infringement.
However, the court did not say anything about whether a copyright infringement occurred or not.
The case is still going on and the court has given some time to the Marathi writers to provide enough evidence to prove copyright infringement.
If the infringement is proved, the court will order Netflix and Red chillies to pay compensation to the Marathi screenwriters.