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'Phone Booth' misses out on a 'Knock Out' punch

  • By Subir Ghosh
  • Subjects: Cinema   
  • Date: October 16, 2010
  • Updated: November 30, 2010
Hollywood says hello: Producers AAP Productions and Sohail Maklai have to cough up Rs 15 million as damages, following a Bombay High Court ruling that their film 'Knock Out' was a copy of the Hollywood hit 'Phone Booth'.

The Sanjay Dutt starrer Knock Out may have been released on Friday, but the Bombay High Court's judgment that eventually allowed Sohail Maklai Entertainment (SME) to release the film has been landmark in its own way. This the first time that an Indian court has admitted that Bollywood infringed a Hollywood copyright. That much, for sure, is landmark.

Thursday had been a day of high drama. First, a single judge bench of the High Court of Justice Roshan Dalvi restrained the producers from releasing the film on Friday. Justice Dalvi did this after watching both Knock Out and Phone Booth on Wednesday. 20th Century Fox had filed the case against the makers of Knock Out, AAP Entertainment and Sohail Maklai, arguing that the film was a remake of their production Phone Booth.

However, the producers immediately approached a division bench of the court. After hearing the case for about an hour and a half, the division bench of Chief Justice Mohit Shah and Justice D Y Chandrachud, in turn, stayed the earlier order. The bench made it clear that the relief granted was on condition that they deposit Rs 15 million with the High Court by October 19 and that they maintain accounts related to business done by the film.

The order came quite late in the evening, at 7:45 pm, but gave the producers enough time to go ahead with their release. The appeal will be heard only in January next. If the verdict goes against the Bollywood producers, the amount will go to 20th Century Fox. But then, the film is tipped to rake in more than Rs 15 million, with distributors Eros releasing the film worldwide. The reason why the bench did not go with Fox was the contention that the film had been publicised way back during the IIFA awards in June and, therefore, the case would have been filed earlier.

Fox had alleged that SME had refused to part with their film’s screenplay. Fox holds the copyright of Phone Booth’s script after the original screenplay writer Larry Cohen entered into an agreement with Fox in 1998. SME had argued that Phone Booth too was a copy of Liberty Stands Still, a film released in 2002. Fox was seeking a monopoly on the idea of a film based on a phone booth, which was not permissible in law.

The bench's decision, which has indeed come as a relief for SME, paves the way for many more court battles to be fought. Till now Hollywood producers had been looking the other way. In a globalised world, however, things are slowly turning out to be different. For, on one hand, the Indian film industry has been trying to make forays into Hollywood. And on the other, Hollywood has been eyeing the massive Indian market, the SME side insisted.

SME counsel Iqbal Chagla said there were only three elements common to both films — a phone booth, a sniper and the extraction of a confession from the protagonist. He said the basic concepts of both films were completely different. While in Phone Booth the sniper makes a man confess to having had an affair with his wife, Knock Out is about corruption.

The conflict, one day, was inevitable. But whether this escalates, remains to be seen. It will be a battle between ideas and modifications of ideas. In India, the euphemism for the latter goes as "inspiration." When the courts cannot stop Indian companies from shamelessly churning out remakes of Indian tracks, it is difficult to see Hollywood film companies and studios winning copyright infringement judgments. Immediately, at least.

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