/ Understanding the Layers: Copyrights in the Film Industry

Understanding the Layers: Copyrights in the Film Industry

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Manish Jindal

December 6, 2023


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Understanding the Layers: Copyrights in the Film Industry

Ever sat through those end credits of a movie and wondered about the myriad of names, roles, and effort it took to bring that story to the big screen?

Beyond the talent and the hard work, there’s a protective shield that ensures every artist’s vision is safeguarded: copyrights.

This article delves deep into the realm of copyrights in the film industry and gives you useful insight into who owns the copyright in the film industry: the director, the producer, or the writer.

A Historical Dive into Film Copyrights

It’s not a topic born yesterday. Since the inception of the film industry, the need to protect creative content has been palpable.

Remember the black-and-white silent films of the early 1900s? Even then, creators were aware of potential copycats and the need to protect their intellectual property.

The Concept Behind Copyright Laws

At its core, copyright is a simple idea: if you create something, it’s yours. But it’s the intricacies, the ifs, and the buts that make it complex.

Copyright laws provide creators with the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, and display their works. These rights aren’t eternal, but they last long enough to ensure a fair chance for creators to profit from their creations.

Who Holds the Copyright for a Movie: Director or Producer

Based on Section 17(b) of the Copyright Act, 1957, it’s clear that in the case of a film produced due to valuable consideration by someone, that individual is the primary copyright holder unless there’s a different agreement in place.

This means the producer holds the copyright, not the original creators like scriptwriters or lyricists.

Despite the clarity of the law, questions have arisen about why the director, the primary creative mind behind a movie, doesn’t possess rights to it.

In a specific case, Ramesh Sippy v. Shaan Ranjeet Uttamsingh & Ors. [2013 (55) PTC 95 (Bom)], the Bombay High Court ruled that the movie’s producer is considered its author since they’re responsible for the financial arrangements and bear the main responsibility for the creation.

While the director of the iconic movie “Sholay” argued that he played a significant role in the movie’s various creative aspects, the court found he didn’t show any proof of financial involvement in the production.

Consequently, he wasn’t seen as the film’s author or owner of copyright.

Is Participation in Film Production Grounds for Ownership of Copyright?

The case involving Kabir Chowdhry posed a curious question: Does involvement in the making of a film through roles like shooting or editing grant one copyright rights?

The application was submitted with a request to acknowledge Kabir Chowdhry as a co-producer and co-owner of the copyright for the documentary ‘Sindhustan’, which he co-created with the Defendant.

The Court pointed out that the requests made by the Plaintiff seemed like they were demanding an obligatory order.

This made the bar for approval even higher than typical requests for temporary relief.

Exploring the definitions of ‘owner’ and ‘author’ of a copyright as described in the Copyright Act, 1957, the Court concluded that:

  • The original creator holds the initial copyright.
  • The term ‘author’ refers exclusively to the producer.
  • The producer is the individual who initiates and assumes accountability for the creation.

Building on the precedent set in the Ramesh Sippy case, the Court examined Kabir Chowdhry’s financial contributions to the film and whether these actions constituted the roles of ‘initiating’ and ‘being responsible’.

While the Court recognised the Plaintiff’s significant contributions, like reshooting and editing without compensation, they determined that the legal criteria weren’t met.

In conclusion, the Court ruled against the application, noting that while a director might also act as a producer in certain situations, only when they’re directly involved in the conceptualisation and realisation of a project, coupled with the financial risks, can they be considered co-producers with rights under the Copyright Act.

Director’s Rights in Film Production

Every creator is entitled to rights based on the nature of their contribution. These creations are categorised as literary, artistic, musical, dramatic, cinematographic, or sound recordings.

Yet, interestingly, a film director’s contribution doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories. As a result, under Section 13 of the Act, they don’t acquire exclusive rights, encompassing financial benefits, linked to the film.

Furthermore, since directors aren’t acknowledged as authors, they aren’t granted the moral rights typically reserved for authors and performers under Section 57 and Section 38B of the Copyright Act.

This legal oversight essentially permits a producer to sideline an individual director, even if the latter played a pivotal role in crafting the entire film.

Film Director vs. Scriptwriter – Who Owns the Copyright?

In the realm of film production, determining copyright ownership can be intricate.

Typically, under many copyright laws, the producer or production company is considered the first owner of the copyright for a cinematographic film.

However, individual contributions, like scripts, are a different matter. Scriptwriters, by default, own the copyright to their written works.

But when they’re commissioned by a production company or sell their script, they often transfer these rights to the producer.

Directors, while pivotal in shaping a film’s vision, usually don’t own copyright for the film itself, unless stipulated in contracts. They might, however, have separate moral rights recognising their role.

It’s essential to understand that contracts and specific jurisdictions can influence these general norms. As always, the specific terms of agreements and local copyright laws determine final ownership.

Understanding Film Rights and Their Importance

Film rights stand as a specialised segment of intellectual property rights, allowing a party to adapt and produce a film from a pre-existing work or idea.

For any movie project, whether steered by a producer, director, writer, or film house, having legal film rights is essential to adapting a work and presenting it on the big screen.

These rights can either be bought outright or “optioned” as a temporary measure, aiming to eventually secure the full rights.

When an individual creates intellectual content, be it a novel, song, video game, or even a character sketch, they automatically gain the copyright for that content.

This means that if someone else wants to use or adapt this work (for instance, stage a copyrighted play in a school), they must obtain permission from the rights owner, often accompanied by a royalty payment.

The permissions granted can be quite specific, ensuring intellectual property is protected.

A clear instance is that while a school might get the rights to stage a play, it doesn’t allow them to develop a sequel based on it.

In essence, film rights act as a green light from the rights holder, allowing the transformation of the original work into a movie.

Alongside the primary film rights, there are other considerations that come into play, particularly in the film industry’s context.

Taking the example of adapting a popular children’s book into a movie, the adaptors would likely want to also secure merchandising rights, enabling them to launch related toys or products.

Securing sequel rights is another aspect often bundled into film rights negotiations.

It’s important to note that exclusive rights holders often hold significant leverage during these negotiations.

Thus, industry experts usually advise those considering selling or optioning their film rights to enlist the services of an entertainment lawyer to guarantee a just deal.

A common initial step in acquiring film rights is the “optioning” process. Here, an interested party—such as a writer or producer—pays a nominal fee to temporarily hold the rights to a property.

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This is done so they can present the concept to potential financiers or film studios. Typically, this option is exclusive, ensuring that only one party holds the rights during the option period.

If the interested party manages to garner financing within this period, they then proceed to purchase the complete film rights. If not, once the optioning period ends, the rights return to the original copyright holder.

Revisiting the Copyright Amendment Bill, 2010

The Copyright Amendment Bill of 2010 was an ambitious proposal aimed at redefining the rights of directors.

Designed to align Indian copyright regulations with the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty and the WIPO Copyright Treaty, this bill was a beacon of hope in clarifying the intricate terrain of directorial rights.

The primary intent was to recognise directors as co-authors of cinematographic works.

The Bill aimed to overhaul existing practices. According to prevailing laws, a film’s copyright rests solely with the producer for 60 years.

However, the Bill sought to share this ownership between the producer and the director.

Additionally, it proposed exclusive rights for directors that would span 70 years, aligning Indian regulations with the standards of countries like the UK and France.

However, when presented to the Parliamentary Standing Committee, the Bill faced substantial opposition.

The Film and Television Producers Guild of India argued that since producers shoulder the financial risks and costs of film production, granting directors—who typically receive both a fixed fee and a share of profits—additional rights would be imbalanced.

They warned that such a shift could hamper the production of films and hinder the entry of new talent into the industry.

Furthermore, the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce made a case against singling out the primary director.

They highlighted that a movie’s creation is a collective effort involving various artists and technicians, making it unjust to prioritise one over the others.

In the end, the committee sided with these stakeholders, emphasising that it would be untenable to grant broad rights to the main director without corresponding responsibilities.

Drawing inspiration from the American practice of mutual contracts, the committee believed the current Indian approach, which revolves around contracts, achieved a fair balance among all parties involved.

Elevating the status of the main director, they concluded, might prove detrimental in the future.

The Call for Comprehensive Film Rights Legislation

India proudly boasts one of the most prolific film industries globally. Bollywood alone stands out, churning out a staggering number of films and commanding a colossal viewership.

When factoring in regional cinema, these figures only soar higher. While the rejection of the 2010 Amendment might have had its justifications, the lack of subsequent legislative actions to safeguard film rights remains a glaring oversight.

Crafting a film is hardly a solo venture; it’s a symphony of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals working in harmony.

Their collective rights warrant legal safeguarding. It’s imperative for our legislators to turn their attention to this segment. While international accords might not mandate directorial rights, India is uniquely poised to pioneer change in this realm.

Given our rich tapestry of diverse regional and indie film sectors, we can model a more balanced copyright framework that hinges on statutory provisions rather than mere contractual agreements.

Historic amendments have reshaped the rights of performers and broadcasters, and it’s high time that similar attention be directed towards the unsung heroes of the film world – directors, editors, and other key contributors.

The legendary Satyajit Ray aptly remarked, “The director is the only person who knows what the film is about.”

Recognising this profound insight, our legislative bodies should acknowledge the immense creativity and commitment directors invest in their craft and, at a minimum, grant them their deserved moral rights.


The application of copyright law in the film industry is both intricate and indispensable.

The ownership of copyright in film is not merely a matter of creativity but also of legal frameworks established by Copyright Legislation.

As the field of copyrights continues to evolve, it’s imperative to recognise and protect the intellectual copyright of all contributors, ensuring that their efforts and innovations are safeguarded.

As the industry progresses, it will be essential to consistently review and adapt these laws, ensuring they stay relevant and effective in upholding creators’ rights.


Who owns the copyright to a film?

Generally, the producer is considered the first owner of copyright in a film, but specifics can vary based on contracts and regional laws.

How does Copyright Legislation influence the film industry?

Copyright Legislation provides the legal framework for determining rights, royalties, and disputes related to film content, ensuring fairness and protection for all stakeholders.

Can a director claim copyright over a film?

This depends on contracts and regional laws. While directors are pivotal creative forces, the primary copyright often rests with the producer unless an agreement states otherwise.

What is copyright in the film industry?

Copyright in the film industry refers to the legal right that protects the original works of creators, ensuring that their film content cannot be used, reproduced, or distributed without their explicit permission.

This includes aspects like scripts, music scores, cinematographic techniques, and the final movie itself.

Who is a copyright owner?

A copyright owner is the individual or entity that holds the exclusive rights to a particular work or piece of content.

In the film industry, this is typically the producer, unless there’s a specific agreement that designates copyright to another party, such as a director or scriptwriter.

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