It has been one year since #PrayForNesamani trended on social media. The hashtag associated with Tamil comedian Vadivelu garnered global attention in 2019, after which several companies and individuals started cashing in on the trend by introducing T-shirts and coffee mugs imprinted with a stylised shot of the iconic scene from the Kollywood movie Friends.
It is a common sight to spot T-shirts with quirky movie lines— ‘Thambi tea innum varala’ or ‘En vazhi thani vazhi’ — screaming at us from merchandise stocked on the shelves of a store or online. These items are much sought after by youngsters due to the pop culture references. The delivery of certain iconic dialogues by some film actors, especially in Kollywood, have secured a lasting place in the state’s cultural history.
When the Ilaiyaraaja controversy broke out, many were wondering about the popular, quirky T-shirts and the catchphrases they carry. In 2017, music composer Ilaiyaraaja sent a legal notice to singer SP Balasubrahmanyam demanding royalty for the songs composed by him. The singer was on a concert tour in the United States and was scheduled to perform many songs composed by the ace composer. The demand for royalty by Ilaiyaraaja sparked a controversy around copyrights and especially, creative rights of a music composer over the tracks he composes for a movie.
In the case of merchandise based on popular movie dialogues, the phrases are not the original work of the companies that sell the T-shirts. However, they reap the monetary benefits that these phrases evoke due to the nostalgia it stirs and the quirkiness associated with it.
Copyright on catchphrases
This raises an important question of whether these cinema dialogues are copyrightable.
“These are lines we all use in our daily lives,” Raunaq Mangottil, founder and Chief Creative Officer at Fully Filmy told TNM. Fully Filmy sells branded merchandise with catchphrases and also partners with events and franchises to sell their official merchandise. He added that while claiming copyright violations might work in the music industry, it might not work that well when it comes to film dialogues.
“Copyright laws in India are a bit murky. I can understand the school of thought where Ilaiyaraaja sir comes from. It might work for music tracks, but for cinema dialogues, I don’t think it would work that way,” he said, adding that companies that sell such merchandise have legal teams that could sort the issue out.
However, Raunaq highlighted the difference between popular punchlines and a trademarked design. Designs are trademarked by the companies that create the design. The trademark covers the font, the image, the styling, the colour, etc to prevent duplication.
“When it is a design that is being replicated, we generally approach the one who is duplicating it to take it down and usually, they oblige,” said Raunaq.
Who owns the lines?
So, who owns the catchphrases, which rake in the moolah for companies that sell the merchandise?
Swapna Sundar, Managing Director of IPDome Strategy Advisors Private Limited and a Chennai-based lawyer working on Intellectual Property (IP), said that copyright claims are usually in the expression— the manner in which a phrase or sentence is delivered. She also pointed out that for a small, non-contextual phrase, one cannot claim copyright.
“There are two things to be discussed here. In reality, most of these actors and writers don't mind because it gives their lines a recall value which lasts for decades after the movie was released. So they will not object to it. Second point is, you cannot really make a copyright issue out of a very small sentence. Basically, it is too small to be treated as a copyrightable work,” she explained.
However, Swapna added that if the catchphrase is trademarked by the creator, then it becomes a product that can be legally protected.
Should copyright laws be made tighter?
A movie belongs to the producer. Though the moral copyright of the dialogues in a movie belongs to the person who pens the screenplay, once it is sold to the director or producer, the screenplay-writer forgoes his legal claim on it.
According to Swapna, copyright claims also largely depend on the power wielded by the original creator in a specific industry. For example, AR Rahman retains the copyright for the songs he composes for movies, though technically the movie is the producer’s product.
When asked if tighter copyright laws with more clarity would make things easier for businesses and artists in the country, Swapna rejected the idea.
“I don’t think people should be forbidden from creatively using the product. Hence, I don’t agree with having more stringent laws around copyrights,” she said.