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SPOTLIGHT: JATT’S LATEST STAND

January 20, 2019

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Fawad Khan in the title role in The Legend of Maula Jatt
Fawad Khan in the title role in The Legend of Maula Jatt

This Eid-ul-Fitr the big battle between behemoths might not be between the iconic figures of Maula Jatt and Noori Natt in The Legend of Maula Jatt. The fight will be of something far worse: of copyright versus copyright.

As the first look trailer of the Fawad Khan-starrer The Legend of Maula Jatt was released in December, WhatsApp groups, Facebook pages and Twitter were the furious battlegrounds between two sets of producers, each claiming to have been the target of injustice and both claiming rights to the title and characters depicted in the film, at the expense of the other. That heated social media battle is being echoed in courts of law as well, threatening the smooth release of a potential blockbuster.

In laymen terms, copyright battles are legal skirmishes between two parties who claim ownership of a money-making idea. The exchanges aren’t bloody, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be dirty.

The epic battle between Maula Jatt and Noori Natt spills forth from reel to real life as the makers of both the 1979 original and The Legend of Maula Jatt battle it out in court over Intellectual Properties rights and copyright laws and infringement

Maula Jatt was a wildly popular film from 1979 that popularised the ‘gandasa’ genre in Lollywood. The film was produced by first-time producer Sarwar Bhatti, but was in fact a sequel to 1975’s Wehshi Jatt, an eye-catching black-and-white film with radical whip-pans, dynamic camera tricks, and (I am assuming) accidental aesthetic contexts in frames, directed by Hasan Askari.

Wehshi itself was based on Gandasa, a short-story written by the giant litterateur Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi. However, the sole screenwriting credit on both Wehshi and Maula belong to screenwriter Nasir Adeeb — and this is where the dilemma starts.

Despite a copyright ordinance in place since 1962, rights of ownership of films and film stories (but not ideas), are popularly believed to be with the producer of the film, and not the screenwriter.

Screenwriters such as Adeeb, as was the norm of the time, were considered employees of the producer and deemed “work-for-hire”, irrespective of the fact that the story and screenplay may have been written on speculative grounds.

To clarify: speculatively written screenplays — called “spec-scripts” — are written by the writer, so that it can be sold to a producer. In this case, the author of the screenplay holds the rights of the story, unless all rights are explicitly sold to a producer in contract for perpetuity or limited term.

Unfortunately, no one thought about contracts or legal paper work in 1979, and the rights for Maula Jatt remain with the producer.

Speculatively written screenplays are written by the writer, so that it can be sold to a producer. In this case, the author of the screenplay holds the rights of the story, unless all rights are explicitly sold to a producer in contract for perpetuity or limited term.

The point, though, has been contested by Ammara Hikmat, the producer of The Legend of Maula Jatt, written and directed by Bilal Lashari (Waar).

Hikmat is betting her money (and a lot of it in this case, given the expensive nature of her film) on the argument that the rights for Maula Jatt’s story are with Adeeb, who not only wrote both Wehshi and Maula, but also wrote its unofficial sequel Maula Jatt in London — a mindboggling film starring Sultan Rahi as Maula Jatt with a cameo from Mustafa Qureshi playing Noori Natt.

Maula Jatt in London was released as Jatt in London, on producer Bhatti’s insistence, I am told. The names of characters and their characteristics were not changed, however.

Historically no producer, including Bhatti, has more than one Maula Jatt title to his credit; three of them, though, do credit Adeeb as the sole screenwriter, which technically tilts the rights of ownership of the characters and the story in his favour.

The laws of copyright are more or less the same worldwide. Intellectual Properties (IP for short) include literary works like stories and screenplays, published, produced or otherwise. Whatever their form, the end product becomes the property of the writer at the time of creation.

Copyrighting is an additional registration process that safeguards the IP in case of legal dispute, and traditionally (unless modified by official government decree), remain with the author until their time of death, and an additional 50 years before becoming property of the public (i.e public domain).

IP and copyright laws aren’t limited to stories. They include works of art, photography, and audio-visual works such as motion pictures (referred to as Cinematographic Works, or as CD in legal parlance).

On general grounds, any original creation, whether inspired from someone else’s creation, is the IP of the “author”. To confuse matters, in legalese, the producer (and not the director — unless he filed for copyright) is considered an “author” of the film.

Clearing these rights is the daily bread and butter of most lawyers practicing entertainment law. In fact, in more mature film markets, every production requires clearance certificates/reports from an authorised rights clearing company before production begins. The process saves a lot of headache (not to mention legal fees) later, and is a prerequisite for distribution.

Producers in Pakistan are slowly becoming aware of the necessity of having the right paperwork.

Hikmat, who had started her film, belatedly approached Bhatti for the rights of the film but was vehemently denied. According to Hikmat, Bhatti and his son, Muttaqi Sarwar (a film graduate), demanded 250 million rupees in compensation as damages. She, meanwhile, had secured Nasir Adeeb’s consent which, in most cases, would have been enough. This set in motion a legal battle.

Neither party, though, had filed for copyright before 2016. Bhatti’s copyright certificate for Cinematographic Work was registered on the 25th of April, 2016; Hikmat’s — or to be precise Nasir Adeeb’s certificate signifying Literary Work (Script of Film) — was registered on the 30th of October, 2017.

According to my understanding, Adeeb’s certificate pertains to the script he wrote for the 1979 Maula Jatt, published at Encyclomedia Lashari Film JV — Lashari and Hikmat’s company (being published, by the way, doesn’t literally mean that it has to come out in a periodical or any other platform; in a crude way, this simply refers to a print-out of the IP).

Both copyright certificates mention a particular restriction that Title/Name/Brand/Mark appearing in “work” is not registered but only the expression/style/get-up of the “work” is registered and protected under copyright law.

In less fancy words, the copyright would only be effective if the film and its characters are copied to a certain degree. If the story and characters deviate enough from the original in the screenplay — a fact Hikmat has been stressing on — then the only cause for worry would be the use of the title.

Bhatti, meanwhile, has also registered the title of Maula Jatt as a trademark on the 7th of January 2019, which makes things problematic for Hikmat and co.

Hamza Ali Abassi as Noori Natt
Hamza Ali Abassi as Noori Natt

On 7th of August, 2018, a tribunal at the IPO (the Intellectual Property Organisation of Pakistan, which awards certificates and trademarks) highlighted two important points in its judgement of the case between Bhatti and Hikmat.

First, since the latest Maula Jatt film has yet to be released, Bhatti cannot yet claim infringement of copyright, which extends to only what was depicted in the 1979 film.

Secondly, that Bhatti, with his prior ownership of the title, has the rights to the words ‘Maula Jatt’ alone but the “adoption of the word Maula and Jatt independently cannot be an infringement.” Central, Punjab and Sindh Censor Boards were, in effect, restrained from giving censorship certificates to any film titled “Maula Jatt”.

Hikmat and Lashari found a simple solution to that particular problem by renaming their film The Legend of Maula Jatt.

Sarwar doesn’t think so. At the end of a very long phone conversation he said that adding legend in front of the title wouldn’t change much. “If you plagiarise a film and name it The True Spider-Man, would that change what the film is?” he asked.

On the 10th of January 2019, Sarwar sent legal notices to ARY Films for entering into a media partnership agreement with Encyclomedia, and the three censor boards for issuing censor certificates to the trailer of the film.

A representative of ARY Films, and later Hikmat, laughed off the legal notice, officially confirming to Icon that till date no agreement has been struck between the two; the only crime ARY News — and not ARY Films — were guilty of, they say, was showcasing the trailer in their news broadcasts.

Danyal Gillani, the Chairman Central Board of Film Censors, didn’t give the notice much weight either, confirming on phone that he and key members had an hour-long conversation with their legal team, and that their decision to certify “The Legend of Maula Jatt” is sound. If the courts say otherwise — which they haven’t, he stressed — the censor board will reverse its decision.

Independent entertainment lawyers consulted on the matter feel the case could swing either way. First, as per law, since all films are essentially the ownership of the producer, Maula Jatt would, in fact, be under the “authorship” of Bhatti’s production company — especially because all writers from that era either sold their scripts to the producer or worked for hire.

However, since there are no receipts or contracts claiming Adeeb’s employment with Bhatti, and he bears sole credit on Wehshi Jatt and Maula Jatt as well as the spin-off Maula Jatt in London, the eventual judgment could go in the favour of Hikmat and Lashari.

More importantly, why didn’t Bhatti file for copyright and trademark when the film came out or, even years later, when other titles seemingly or deceptively connected to the franchise, were released?

Mahira Khan as Mukkho
Mahira Khan as Mukkho

A document sent by Hikmat lists four titles using the words Maula and Jatt. None, the document claims, was contested by Bhatti. The four titles were: Maula Jatt in London (which, a poster confirms, had been renamed to Jatt in London, as explained earlier), Maula Jatt Te Noori Natt, Shagird Maula Jatt Da and Maula Tay Mukkho.

Other than Maula Tay Mukkho, which I was not able to obtain for research, and Jatt in London, which was a tangential sequel, neither Maula Jatt Te Noori Natt (a spoof about two idiots) nor Shagird Maula Jatt Da (a low-budget, overacted actioner) had anything to do with the 1979 original.

The document from Hikmat further argues, that “infringement would take place in cinematographic work when an actual copy is made of a film by some mechanical process. It does not appear to be case of the petitioner that coming movie contained such actual copy.” This seems to be a weak argument.

The core issue, though, is the difference between the two filed copyrights: one is for Cinematographic work, the other for Literary work.

By virtue of argument, Maula Jatt and its relevant theme should actually be the property of Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi. And further still, even if Qasmi’s story was first adapted by Nasir Adeeb in Wehshi Jatt, the character and characteristics of Maula should, technically, belong to Adeeb.

The Sarwar Bhatti-produced Maula Jatt’s biggest draw, however, was the uber-cool anti-hero Noori Natt, so another core issue would be the ownership of the creation of that character. Since Noori Natt was not in Qasmi’s story, nor was he in Wehshi Jatt, the characters’ rights should, technically, be with Adeeb — until, that is, a proper employment contract or a work-for-hire agreement is presented stating otherwise.

In argument, Sarwar tells me that his father had handed over an almost final copy of the screenplay to Adeeb before Maula Jatt went into production, and that Adeeb himself agreed to that claim in writing. (If that is correct, Sarwar should have taken screenwriting credit and the literary rights would belong to him, but I have yet to come across such evidence).

The issue of contention over the use of title, however, still stands. Sarwar tells me that most producers who produced other Maula Jatt films were given permission to use the title without remuneration because they belonged to the film fraternity. It was Bhattis’ decision to give the title to whomever they please, he told me in a matter-of-fact way.

Why, then, are Hikmat and Lashari any different? Is it because their film is expensive, or that they did not belong to the old film industry? Or that there is a franchise potential in their version of the story?

Talking to both parties on and off, the case appears to have become unduly complicated of late. After the IPO judgement — whose tribunal, in IPO’s own words, “works as a civil court and its decisions are appealable at the provincial high courts” — the fight seems to have picked up speed, with both parties serving each other notices.

The issue, though will likely stay like this until The Legend of Maula Jatt releases, when it will be scrutinised against the 1979 original. Even if proven to be a copy, injunctions, proceedings and legal actions will most probably take time to come into effect.

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 20th, 2019