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Humans of Bombay's Copyright Infringement lawsuit could advance Copyright Jurisprudence in India*

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

Whether there was any infringement or not is a matter of factual inquiry and the concerned court will come to their conclusion in due course.

Formats are not expressly mentioned as protectable works in the Indian Copyright Act, 1957. They also face the challenge of meeting the kryptonite of copyrightability - idea-expression dichotomy, i.e., when an expression is so basic that protecting the expression would end up excluding others from using the idea underlying the expression - a scenario that is diligently avoided by copyright regimes.

It is possible that 'a photo blog covering human stories' could face the challenge of overcoming the idea-expression obstacle - which is why 'Humans of New York's' founder probably thought it was a good idea to not proceed against 'Humans of Bombay'. To me, both the Indian and American photo-blogs appear to be a simple scroll of real-life stories. So I'd give claims of 'forgiveness' made by the founder of 'Humans of New York' a short pass - precisely because if the claims of 'Humans of Bombay' against a spinoff is alleged to be incredulous, then what legally valid basis forms Humans of New York's founder's claims of having 'forgiven' something that may not be legally sustainable in the first place. Unfortunately, Karishma Mehta's online mob lynching was done as the impatient junta seldom has the time and ability to equip themselves with appropriate facts and to appreciate nuances.

Yet, given enough distinctive features that pass the 'minimal creativity' standard, formats may enjoy protection against duplication. In their lawsuit against 'People of India', - whether 'Humans of Bombay' is replete with enough distinctive features is left best for the courts to decide.

Although, going by this news report, it appears that the lawsuit also claims that 'People of India' lifted stories, and pirated content. The court gripped with this matter, is reported to have found 'substantial imitation' and 'identical photos' - which if true, is a clear no-no.

Regardless, I would be curious to find out if the lawsuit examines questions of recreation of stories already in the public domain?

Copyright does protect different expressions even if based on the same underlying theme, idea, or subject-matter - so long as the subsequent expression is significantly different and does not appear to be a substantial imitation with few cosmetic tweaks here and there made only to avoid allegations of duplication.

Remember, 3 movies coming out one after another in 2002 on 'Bhagat Singh'? None of them had any copyright issue between each other because each film was a separately expressed recreation of facts publicly available.

With that being the case, it's vital for photo/video blogs relying on real life stories to obtain exclusive biopic rights as well - if they intend to prevent others from recreating stories publicly made available by them.

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