Sunday, January 30, 2022

Bombay High Court Refuses To Stall Release Of Web Series "Mission to Pakistan"

The court was hearing an interim application in a commercial suit by Solflicks Filmworks Pvt Ltd (SFPL) against Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd (ZEEL) seeking to restrain ZEEL from acting in pursuance to the termination letters, by which the Production Agreement was purported to be terminated. The application also sought restrain on ZEEL from entering into an agreement with any third party and from utilising any intellectual property rights 'belonging to SFPL' with respect to the series.
Justice NJ Jamadar, in an order passed earlier this week, observed, "What is of significance is the fact that the Production Agreement provided a mechanism for addressing the consequences which entail pre-mature termination of the contract. Once the Court finds that the claim of the ownership of copyright in the underlying work and the developed work or for that matter episodes, is not prima-facie sustainable, the issue of remedy on account of unlawful or unjustified termination of the Production Agreement, squarely falls in the realm of damages."

The Case

The Suit filed by SFPL, which is engaged in the business of content production, says that it had approached ZEEL for the first time in August 2018 through SFPL's predecessor partnership firm Ahaana Productions with an "initial concept." ZEEL liked the concept which was based on a book Mission to Pakistan and the two entities signed a Development Agreement in 2019 to further commission works and develop it further.
Subsequently, in February last year, a Production Agreement was signed between the two parties appointing SFPL as Line Producer to execute the production of the 'developed work' and 'developed concept' into an audio-visual program comprising episodic content tentatively titled as 'Mission to Pakistan.' SFPL was to be paid Rs 2,12,45,750 per episode aggregating to Rs 16,99,66,000 for eight episodes all inclusive of artist cost, production of program, packaging etc.

ZEEL cleared the screenplay on March 7, 2021 and proceeded with the next stage which involved getting dialogues written and providing a shoot timeline with regards to commencement of shoot from March 20, 2021. However, on June 16, 2021, ZEEL proceeded to terminate the production agreement citing a clause which talked about "creative differences/discontent warranting termination of the contract".

On August 28, 2021, ZEEL intimated SFPL that it was in the process of appointing another party to take over the work of Line Producer's work, which resulted in SFPL approaching the court.

Court Order

"In the backdrop of the aforesaid provisions in the Development Agreement, the thrust of the submission on behalf of the plaintiff that the plaintiff still retained the copyright in the initial concept and the underlying work does not, ex-facie, merit countenance. Undoubtedly, the plaintiff pitched and claimed the copyright in the initial concept. However, for lawful and valuable consideration, the plaintiff not only duly assigned the copyright in the Initial Concept but also agreed that the further work based on the initial concept, shall be in the nature of the work made for hire," Justice Jamadar noted.

The court further added, "It is trite that in a work executed pursuant to such commissioning, in the absence of any agreement to the contrary, the person creating the work does not hold a copyright as the ownership of the copyright vests in the person getting the work commissioned." The court also rejected the argument about "unequal bargaining power".

The court refused to delve deep into the "creative differences" issue at this stage, and refused to grant any relief to SFPL.

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