It is tough times for the media industry, and social media doesn’t seem to be helping. Media conglomerates DB Corp and Bennett and Coleman have taken WhatsApp to court over their copyrighted e-newspapers circulating on the messaging platform.
The Delhi High Court has been hearing these two cases since 2021—but this isn’t the first time these kinds of companies have squared off against social media companies. As we recently reported, Telegram is facing its own woes up north, with at least five different suits filed against it over copyrighted material floating around the platform.
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Why it matters: In some of the Telegram cases, details of users allegedly sharing copyrighted content were identified and handed over to the Court. Copyright seems to be intersecting with privacy violations here—and all of this is happening in the absence of a privacy law in India. A small mercy in the WhatsApp cases so far: the Delhi High Court hasn’t asked for anyone to be specifically identified just yet.
Is it time to re-frame the copyright argument? A lot of the complaints against Telegram and WhatsApp are about educational materials and newspapers being floated online for free. That’s really bad for these businesses—especially given their tight margins. It also doesn’t help build a self-sustaining subscriptions-based media or education sector. The flip side is that there seem to be some serious bottlenecks when accessing educational materials. Why would there be such a demand for free material otherwise? The solution here might not just be in the hands of the Delhi High Court’s copyright and privacy experts—it could also lie in strengthening public access to all types of knowledge at an institutional level. Should universities and schools be buying more subscriptions to educational services to help students study? Should creative commons licenses be used more widely to promote the exchange of information? Should consumers be educated more on why some services are or need to be paid?
Everything you need to know about the copyright cases against WhatsApp
DB Corp. enters the Court
Who’s who? Dainik Bhaskar’s parent group, DB Corporation Limited, took WhatsApp to Court in 2021. They own the Dainik Bhaskar, Divya Marathi, Divya Bhaskar and Bhaskar Group trademarks. And they also publish various e-newspapers.
A case of déja vu: Similar to the Telegram case, free copies of DB Corp’s e-newspapers were allegedly circulating on a number of WhatsApp groups. DB Corp admitted though that “there might be many other groups and platforms where the e-newspapers of Plaintiff have been unauthorisedly and illegally shared, however, Plaintiff [DB Corp] remains unaware of the same”. Whatever they knew about, they informed WhatsApp on August 30th, 2021, asking the messaging platform to take the infringing groups down. But WhatsApp turned down the request—and insisted that DB Corp “provide it with an order from the Court to that effect”.
So DB Corp did just that and went to the Delhi High Court—filing a suit against WhatsApp, and over 80 people who formed groups to share the e-newspapers.
WhatsApp got its order: On December 24th, 2021, the Delhi High Court directed WhatsApp to “take down/ block” the groups.
And what about after that? Last March, we found out that some of the defendants were served notice through—you guessed it—WhatsApp. Some couldn’t be reached because their “phone numbers weren’t available on WhatsApp”. The Court asked for fresh contact details of defendants 40, 46, 47, 56, 60, 75 and 79 to be supplied. Some defendants had even approached DB Corp to talk about settling.
A year later: Fast forward to November 2022 and not much had happened—but Kapil Sibal, who appeared for WhatsApp, assured the Court that groups where the newspapers were being circulated “would be identified, to the extent possible and shall be blocked”. Details on the groups would then be handed over to DB Corp within four weeks. The Court added that DB Corp was free to tell WhatsApp about any new groups that might crop up after which “the same process of identification, blocking and supply of details shall be followed”. We’ll find out what happens next on February 6th, 2023.
Every newspaper ever (sort of) v WhatsApp
Who’s who: Bennett Coleman publishes most of the newspapers (both physical and digital) you read every now and then—like Times of India, Navbharat Times, and Economic Times. Naturally, they own the copyrights over these works too.
Their “publications are said to be widely considered of high repute,” the Delhi High Court specified in its order. The benchmark for repute: “the news articles published in the plaintiff’s newspapers are published with indication/credit to the specific named source for instance PTI, Reuters, etc”.
So, why the suit? In June 2020, Bennett Coleman noticed that PDFs of its e-newspapers were allegedly being circulated illegally on WhatsApp and Telegram. It wasn’t happy about the copyright violation—so in 2021 it filed a suit against both platforms, the admins of the WhatsApp groups sharing the papers, and the WhatsApp groups and Telegram channels they were circulated in. What it wanted: the court to restrain the platforms and the infringing users from “copying, reproducing, adopting, distributing, transmitting, disseminating in any manner” its copyrighted e-newspapers.
The Delhi High Court empathised: On May 25th, 2021, the Delhi Court granted a temporary stay in favour of Bennett Coleman. Telegram came back on June 4th, asking the Court to clarify that its obligations were “limited to removal of infringing content on receipt of a complaint by the Plaintiff, in accordance with the IT Act and the IT Rules 2021”. The Court clarified that this is what it meant.
What now? From what we can make out of the paper trail, nothing significant really happened since June 2021. That might change—come February 10th 2023—when the case is set to be renotified before the Delhi High Court.
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