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Can someone own common expressions? Bombay High Court says no

Riteish Deshmukh’s Marathi debut film, Lai Bhaari got embroiled in an Intellectual Property Right (IPR) tussle with a Mumbai-based social networking site LaiBhaari.com earlier this month, reports Spicy IP.

The four-year old Marathi social networking site claims to have obtained a trademark for the popular Marathi phrase ‘Lai Bhaari’, and wanted the filmmakers to change the title of the film. The Bombay High Court judgment (dated 3rd July 2014) on the case has settled the matter for the time being, and enabled the filmmakers to release the film as per schedule on July 11, 2014. However, it sparked off a larger debate.

Can any individual or company own common expressions?

Justice Patel succinctly rules that Techlegal has “absolutely no proprietary or statutory rights in the phrase “lai bhaari”, no matter how spelled.”

He notes that awarding proprietary rights for common expressions to any individual or company has dangerous consequences and such disputes cannot be the mandate of intellectual property protection laws. He notes that this would amount to “a form of censorship and the gagging of speech and expression.”

The judgment also notes that the trademark registration produced by the Plaintiff is of the domain name laibhaari.com, and not of the colloquial Marathi expression ‘Lai Bhaari’, and that both are completely different things. Plus, the registration is applicable only to the narrow range of services under Class 38 of the Trade Marks Act. In fact, when Techlegal Solutions tried to trademark the expression ‘Lai Bhaari’ the Registry apparently opposed it and the application is still pending.

When Techlegal Solutions’ lawyer cited the Supreme Court ruling in the M/s. Satyam Infoway Ltd. vs. M/s. Sifynet Solutions Pvt. Ltd. as an example to state that domain names have all the signs of a trademark, the judge notes that the dispute in that case was regarding the domain name Sify, which is an artificial word and cannot in any way be compared to a common expression.

This ruling of the Bombay HC is a landmark judgment, since there is now a semblance of clarity on the extent of control, IPR protection laws have over common expressions used by a large section of the populace.

This isn’t the first time that a film’s title has come under the purview of copyright infringement laws. According to a Open Magazine reports, several films have altered their titles due to trademarks. Bollywood movie Rambo Rajkumar was changed to R…. Rajkumar since Rambo is a registered trademark, while Aman ki Asha was reportedly changed to Total Siyappa, since Aman Ki Asha is supposedly owned by The Times of India.

Also Read: De-Coding Indian Intellectual Property Law

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