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Chetan Bhagat's One Indian Girl vs Anvita Bajpai's Drawing Parallels: When authors are accused of plagiarising stories

A Bangalore-based writer, Anvita Bajpai, recently filed a copyright infringement suit against Chetan Bhagat alleging that Bhagat had plagiarised Bajpai's story, Drawing Parallels, in his 2016 novel, One Indian Girl. In April 2017, a civil court in Bangalore passed a temporary injunction restraining the sale of One Indian Girl by Bhagat and his publishers, until the next hearing in the matter in June. While the court is yet to rule on the merits of the case, it is worth exploring the copyright law provisions in India in this regard.

In copyright law, under the 'idea- expression dichotomy', only the expression of an idea is protected and not the idea 'per se' (by itself). This means that a particular literary work may contain ideas/themes similar to those found in another literary work, so long as the expression or manifestation of those ideas is different. To understand the distinction between ideas and expressions, take the example of Margaret Mitchell's classic, 'Gone with the Wind', which contained several themes such as American Civil War, the effect which the war had on the characters of the novel, and slavery which existed in America at that time. The story which was written in the backdrop of these themes forms the 'expression' of those ideas. According to the idea-expression dichotomy, copyright law would only prevent copying of the story (expression) of Gone with the Wind by another person, however, if someone were to write a story centred around the Civil War, this would not (by itself) infringe Mitchell's copyright.

Bangalore-based writer Anvita Bajpai. Image courtesy: Facebook

Bangalore-based writer Anvita Bajpai. Image courtesy: Facebook

Bajpai who published an anthology of short stories including Drawing Parallels in her book Life, Odds and Ends in 2014, claims that Bhagat's book bears many similarities to Bajpai's story with respect to the characters and story-line, and is an "intelligent copy" of Drawing Parallels. According to Bajpai, her story 'Drawing Parallels' is "centred on a woman, feminist, non-conventional, adventurously deviant especially in matters of relationships with the opposite sex; and she settles down in her third relationship by finding a balance for her family and other aspirations."

In a public note on her Facebook timeline, Bajpai notes some of the similarities between her book and 'One Indian Girl' as "both stories begin with a situation where the protagonist-female is trying to adjust with her family, when she gets to encounter her 1st boyfriend that makes her think about her past times with him, their separation, and her resulted change of physical location in the broken state of mind; followed by a narration of her second romantic relationship - again in flashback - that converged to no future for a happy married life for her. So, in present time, she is shown to give-in to the needs of her immediate family, where, the thoughts and encounters of her past relationships result in making her think of taking a break to understand what she really needed. Both stories end at one of the seven wonders of world, where the protagonist-female is shown to experience a balance of various aspects for her life with a third man."

She further states, "many situations, scenes and names are also similar in both stories, though with an effort to put in changed context; to mention a few: (i) the presence of both ex-boyfriends in her luxurious wedding with the third man in her life; and the fact that protagonist-female keeps having internal dialogue with herself; and similar names like, Mark, Oxford, Kolkata, Goa, Facebook are there in both stories. (ii) pattern pointed by plaintiff is that in "Drawing Parallels" story of the book "Life, Odds & Ends", the protagonist-female constantly drives analogy between her 1st boyfriend and Krishna (God) (so an indirect comparison of her with Radha, as she was married in "Drawing Parallels") - and as a similarity of this concept - in the "One Indian Girl", the name of the protagonist-female is Radhika. Together, all these facts and patterns point that "One Indian Girl" authored by defendant No.1 in the year 2016 is adapted from the book "Life, Odds & Ends" from the story of "Drawing Parallels" published in the year 2014."

Going by Bajpai's Facebook post, one can trace similarities both in the themes of the two stories and their story-lines (treatment of the ideas). For instance, Bajpai alleges common situations in both the stories such as the protagonist's former partners attending her wedding, the climax at one of the Wonders of the World and references to the protagonist drawing analogy between Krishna and her 1st boyfriend. To a third person, the similarities pointed out by Bajpai seem too good to be co-incidental. Bhagat, on the other hand, could argue that Bajpai's story itself was not novel or unique because stories which relate to a woman and her past relationships are not rare. Bhagat could argue that such stories in fact constitute a genre in Indian literature by itself and therefore, these are broad ideas/themes not protected by copyright law. Further, a strong female protagonist is also not unheard of in most stories. What would be difficult for Bhagat to justify are the similarities in the details or nuances of the stories where even certain situations have been copied by Bhagat, as alleged by Bajpai.

Chetan Bhagat. AFP

Chetan Bhagat. AFP

A fact of particular consequence in this case is that Bajpai in her suit also claims that she had met Bhagat in 2016 in the Bangalore Literature Festival 2014 (BLF '14) and handed him a copy of her book for review (Bajpai has in fact published photos of Chetan Bhagat with her book at the BLF '14 on Facebook as evidence). While this might not necessarily be conclusive evidence for courts to rule in Bajpai's favour, it does give rise to a very strong presumption that Bhagat read Bajpai's book and used her story in his book. Even if Bhagat did intentionally copy Bajpai's story after reading her book, it is likely that he was subconsciously 'inspired' to write a similar story. In this case too, Bhagat would be guilty of copyright infringement because 'intention to copy' is not relevant under Indian Copyright Act. Here, it would be useful if Bhagat could adduce evidence (through emails to his agent or friends/acquaintances) that he had conceived of the idea for One Indian Girl much before Bajpai's book. In the absence of such evidence, it would be difficult for Bhagat to argue that the similarities in the two stories are merely co-incidental.

Sometimes, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the elements which form mere ideas or themes in a literary work and those which are a part of the expression itself; it is likely that where there is a commonality of multiple elements in literary works, the expression (or the treatment of those elements) is also common, leading to a finding of copyright infringement. The court in this case must consider the literary works as a whole to determine whether Bhagat's novel is a "copy" of 'Drawing Parallels', as claimed by Bajpai.

This is a factual determination, and social media reaction to the two novels (whether the readers feel that 'One Indian Girl' has been copied from Bajpai's work) would play a key role in the court's analysis. While Chetan Bhagat has maintained that Bajpai's allegations are baseless, a smart way out for him could be to settle the matter out of court.

The author is a research fellow at Centre for WTO Studies, Indian Institute of Foreign Trade. The views expressed are personal.

Updated Date: Apr 28, 2017 18:47 PM

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