Currently in its 60th year, the Screenwriters Association (SWA) aims to help members decode the confusing legalese that constitutes the first contract they are made to sign when submitting their script to a producer or production house. Termed ‘release form’, the contract binds the writer and producer to “honour the sanctity of a script”, but from the contract binds the writer and producer to “honour the sanctity of a script”, but from their recent experience, SWA lawyers believe the document absolves producers of all legal obligations, leaving its members’ intellectual property vulnerable.
“We analysed release forms from around 15 production houses and found several clauses which are unfair to writers and won’t stand in the court of law,” elaborate Anamika Jha, who handles legal matters for the association. Anjum Rajabali, executive committee member of SWA, explains more simply, “It’s like I ask my neighbour to keep an eye on my house while I’m on vacation and he asks me to sign a note that I can’t sue him for stealing, even if later I see the same things in his house.”
To streamline the process, the writer’s body has now drafted an ideal contract. “It is an unbiased from, which serves the purpose of an initial contract and doesn’t victimise either party. It asks producers to honour confidentiality, respect copyright and do away with redundant clauses,” shares Jha, adding they will soon send out letters to all production houses and independent producers, asking for their support.
Bikas Mishra, head of the media sub-committee, points out that new writers usually don’t have bargaining power. If they don’t sign the contract, they lose out on an opportunity and if they do, it hampers their prospects. The idea is to empower them. “If they are dismissive towards our request, we will speak to the CEOs and try to work out a mutually beneficial agreement,” says Anjum, while Bikas adds that they will ask writers to not sign such contract and also send a notice to those production houses. He however, admits that there is no way to legally enforce their request since it is only a contract between two parties and the association is not involved in the deal.
Acknowledging that junior writers might be sceptical about letting go of opportunities, Anjum reason, “Writers need to develop confidence in their script and take a stand. Just like they won’t agree to accept a lower remuneration, they should refuse to sign and unfair contract.”
1. The clause that prohibits writers from laying a claim or litigating if s/he believes that his/her work has been misappropriated, infringed upon or plagiarised by anyone, including a production house, is legally untenable as it violates section 28 of the Indian Contract Act, 1872, as it asks the writer to waive with the statutory right to seek legal remedies.
2. The material being submitted to the production house by the writer is in confidence, as it contains his/her intellectual property. The high courts of Bombay and Delhi, in numerous judgements, have declared and establish that such information by nature is proprietary and confidential.
3. There is redundant indemnity provision in several release letters, which state that the writer shall indemnify the production house if it faces any loss due to infringing content. Such indemnity is unnecessary at this stage, since there is no assignment of rights or monetary dealing involved.