APAA e-Newsletter (Issue No. 41, June 2024)

Can a ‘Sanyasi’ or Monk Hold Copyright?

Essenese Obhan and Nathalia M Fenwick - Obhan and Associates (India)

The act of renunciation is ordinarily accompanied by a moral expectation of relinquishment of material possessions. However, the laws surrounding the rights of a renunciate, and the legal consequences of renunciation are undefined, and remain active, occasionally being the subject of judicial inquiry.

A dictionary definition of renunciation is that it is ‘the formal announcement that someone no longer owns, supports, believes in, or has a connection with something.’ In the Hindu tradition, a ‘sanyasi’ (monk) is a religious ascetic who has given up all claims to social or familial standing. It is assumed that a ‘sanyasi’ also gives up possession and property ownership. This also invites questions around ownership, possession, transfer, or acquisition of property. This article discusses the issue of copyright protection in works authored by a monk, which came up for consideration before the Delhi High Court in the matter of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust India v. www.friendwithbooks.co, CS (COMM) 88/2021 and I.A. 78/2023.

The plaintiff, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust India (‘the Trust’), is a public charitable trust, which prints, publishes and distributes the works of Srila Prabhupada. Srila Prabhupada was a well-known philosopher, spiritual guide, prolific writer, and exponent of Vedic literature. He had publicly relinquished his worldly possessions in 1959 to become a ‘sanyasi’, before founding the ‘International Society for Krishna Consciousness’ (‘ISKCON’) movement in 1971.

The Trust was set up in March 1972, and Srila Prabhupada was one of the initial three trustees and the trust’s settlor. A deed entered into on January 15, 1975, verified that he had assigned the trust his copyright and publication rights in his books.

In December 2020, the plaintiff discovered that the defendant was reproducing complete copies of the books written by Srila Prabhupada through its website. The plaintiff then filed a suit seeking a permanent injunction restraining the defendant from infringing their copyright. The court granted an ex parte ad interim injunction restraining the defendant from engaging in or authorizing the reproduction of the books in any medium or from infringing the plaintiff’s rights.

Subsequently, the defendant, in compliance with the order of the court, took down all infringing materials or references made to the plaintiff’s books from their website. However, the defendant also raised a fundamental objection regarding the right of a monk to hold copyright, contending that Srila Prabhupada could not own copyright in his works, as he had renounced all worldly possessions, including property, and had become a ‘sanyasi’, akin to “civil death”.

The Delhi High Court, while passing the order in favor of the plaintiff, observed that a renunciate is ‘a person who, by statement, utterance, writing, or otherwise, renounces or gives up possessions, rights, or claims.’. The Court noticed that Section 21 of the Indian Copyright Act clearly provides the right to relinquish copyright: An author can relinquish their copyright by giving a notice in the prescribed form to the Registrar of Copyrights or by way of a public notice. The law does not, in any provision, contemplate automatic relinquishment of rights, and giving a notice as prescribed by law is necessary.

In the present case, Srila Prabhupada never relinquished his copyright according to the process under law. On the contrary, instead of relinquishment, Srila Prabhupada had clearly assigned his copyright to the trust by an assignment deed.

The Delhi High Court referred to a host of decisions laying down the position on property ownership, possession and transfer by renunciates. The foremost Indian decision ownership and possession of property by a renunciate has been the case of Math Sauna v. Kedar Nath alias Uma Shankar (1982) 1 SCR 659 (para 6), in which the Supreme Court affirmed that certain sects of ‘sanyasis’ continue to possess and acquire personal property even after becoming sanyasis.

The Delhi High Court in Swami Dr. Kishore Dass Ji v. State and Anr, 2012 SCC OnLine Del 3903, held that unless there is a bar that is proved to exist in law or customary law, there cannot be any bar for a swami or sanyasi owning or bequeathing a property. Similarly, Swami Gurudev Muni Chela Sewa Dass Ji v. State 2015 SCC OnLine Del 12506 highlighted the absence of any presumption in law making a sanyasi incapable of holding a property and observed that in cases of civil death, only the normal line of succession is affected. In Sulamangalam R. Jayalakshmi and Anr. v. Meta Musicals & Ors. 2003 3 LW 38, the Madras High Court took the view that being a saint or an ascetic does not deprive the person of their copyright in the work, which is essentially the result of intellectual labour and skill.

Following precedent, the Delhi High Court in the present case held that a person who chooses to become a ‘sanyasi’ or an ascetic can still continue to hold copyright protection in their works, unless relinquished according to a process known to law.