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Delhi HC restrains infringement of Amitabh Bachchan’s personality rights

The Delhi High Court issued an interim order on Friday prohibiting people at large from infringing on the personality and publicity rights of legendary Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan had approached the court seeking protection of his personality rights. Senior lawyer Harish Salve appeared on the actor’s behalf. The matter came for a hearing before Justice Navin Chawla.

While passing the interim order in the veteran actor’s favour, Justice Navin Chawla observed: “It cannot seriously be disputed that the plaintiff is a well-known personality and is also represented in various advertisements. The plaintiff is aggrieved by the defendants using his celebrity status to promote their own goods and services without his permission or authorization. Having considered the plaint, I am of the opinion that a prima facie case is made out and balance of convenience also lies in his favour.”

Senior counsel Harish Salve had begun his arguments by explaining what caused the veteran Bollywood actor to initiate the suit. “All India sim card WhatsApp lucky draw. Lucky draw holder name — Amitabh Bachchan and Mukesh Ambani,” Salve told the court citing one of the advertisements in which Bachchan’s name was used. He went on to say that people have complained that such lottery advertisements were scams.

Kaun Banega Crorepati Whatsapp scam which is using pictures of Amitabh Bachchan

Amitabh Bachchan had moved the court seeking to protect his personality and publicity rights after scams forwarded on WhatsApp were found to be using his name and photographs. Notably, as pointed out by Salve, a WhatsApp scam is making rounds on the instant messaging platform that mentions Narendra Modi and Mukesh Ambani, apart from Bachchan. This is actually an old scam which keeps resurfacing time and again. In this purported scam, scammers are sending messages to users claiming to have won a Rs 25 lakh lottery, which is obviously a ruse to fool users and steal their hard-earned money.

Scammers are utilising photographs of PM Narendra Modi, legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan, Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani and the name Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) to make the scam appear real. A message is being received from non-Indian numbers such as +92 309 7423840 and +1 914 6553526 with a poster image indicating that the user has won Rs 25 lakh in a lottery.

Notably, +92 is the country code of Pakistan, and miscreants use this code and call up unsuspecting cellphone users to siphon off money or lure them into a scam.

The Whatsapp message to lure people into the lottery scam

The message then instructs the user to specifically Whatsapp call on numbers like 7305563282 and 9644517195 and inform them that they have won the lotto prize and their Lotto number. Along with the poster, there is an audio message that describes how to get the money transferred to the bank account.

The Whatsapp message to lure people into the lottery scam

Drawing the Delhi HC’s attention towards such lottery scams which have been wrongly using the actor’s picture, Bachchan petitioned the High Court for an omnibus injunction to safeguard his name, image, voice, or any of his qualities that were used without his authorization.

According to the lawsuit, mobile application developers were using Bachchan’s name, image, and voice to conduct lotteries by illegally linking with Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), the show hosted by the veteran actor.

He has also obtained injunctions against book publishers, T-shirt vendors, and other enterprises against the unauthorised use of his images. Bachchan’s counsel told the court that the defendants are operating websites and mobile apps by misappropriating Bachchan’s photographs and/or other characteristics, to create popularity amongst the public and to entice members of the public to download such mobile apps.

After hearing the argument, Justice Chawla issued an interim order prohibiting those in the public eye from violating Bachchan’s personality and publicity rights. The matter will be heard in March next year.

What are Personality Rights?

Let us examine the position and framework of laws in place in India that deal with the protection of the rights of celebrities and famous figures, also known as personality rights or celebrity rights, in a country where people revere celebrities such as actors, cricket players, and even politicians as “larger than life” figures.

Personality rights are a person’s rights relating to his or her personality that can be protected under the right to privacy or as a person’s property. Most celebrities worry about this since the businesses utilise their name for commerce, which influences their sales and other operations. People can readily misuse the name or image of celebrities for personal gain, thus prominent figures must register their identities to protect their personality rights.

Whether Indian law recognises the right to privacy

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, under the rights to privacy and publicity, is the closest provision to protecting personality rights. Other statutory provisions under intellectual property law control and protect personality rights more broadly. For example, moral rights are only guaranteed to authors and performers by the Copyright Act of 1957, which includes actors, singers, musicians, dancers, and so on.

The ability to regulate how their persona, in the form of their voice, signature, likeness, appearance, silhouette, feature, face, expression, gesture, mannerism, and distinctive character, is being used and commercialised is a person’s right to their personality and image.

Personality rights, as a fairly broad term, have been interpreted by courts in a variety of contexts to defend celebrities’ rights. In Shivaji Rao Gaikwad vs. Varsha Productions case, the Madras High Court remarked that, while “Personality Rights” are not specified in any Indian statute, Indian courts have recognised them in a number of judgements. Notably, this case was filed by the legendary Tamil superstar Shivaji Rao Gaikwad, known professionally as Rajinikanth.

Similarly, in 2012, in the Titan Industries Ltd. vs. Ramkumar Jewellers case, the Delhi High Court defined a celebrity as “a famous or a well-known person and is merely a person who “many” people talk about or know about” and further went on to lay down that “The right to control the commercial use of human identity is the right to publicity.”

In the case at hand, the photograph of Indian celebrities Amitabh Bachchan and his wife Jaya Bachchan, which was uniquely captured for the endorsement of the plaintiff’s jewellery product, was unauthorizedly utilised by the defendant for his jewellery product. While issuing a permanent injunction against the defendant, the Court clarified that the identity of a famous personality or celebrity can be used in advertisements for commercial purposes, but only with the consent and approval of the respective personality regarding the time, place, and nature of usage.

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