Times Now Versus Arnab Goswami: Who will win the IP battle?

It seems there’s some room for Goswami to wiggle out of the legal tangle with his former employers.

ByShamnad Basheer
Times Now Versus Arnab Goswami: Who will win the IP battle?
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Nothing sells like controversy. And who better to appreciate this than Arnab Goswami, the argumentative anchor who makes Fox News look chicken.

One might be forgiven, then, for thinking that the latest IP (intellectual property) brouhaha works in favour of Goswami and Republic to remain in the spotlight. But there’s more at stake here. Especially since the Times Group had lodged a criminal complaint alleging that Goswami along with his colleague Prema Sridevi stole valuable intellectual property from them.

Most commentators assume (and rightly so) that the key dispute between Goswami and the Times Group turns on the employment contract. A purely private matter between these two warring factions. Not quite. The “nation” is very much at the center of this dispute. At least, in so far as the trademark issue is concerned. For it is the public (me and you) that has to ultimately determine the fate of this dispute.

Even as regards the criminal complaint, the case may not be as open and shut as it is made out to be in the mainstream media.

Let me explain.

A key issue between the warring parties is this: Who owns the catchy slogan, “The Nation Wants To Know”? While trademark law does not bar protection for a rather trite phrase such as this, it demands a high degree of proof that the said slogan has come to be exclusively associated with the trademark owner. Let’s assume for the purpose of this piece that the Times Group will procure enough evidence to establish that the phrase is worthy of trademark protection.

As per the contract between the parties (relevant clauses of which were reproduced by the Delhi High court in its initial order issuing summons to Goswami), it is clear that the Times Group owns all IP rights in “all works” created by Goswami during the course of his employment including “brand names, logos, text, photos, articles, videos, audio…”

Further the clause also suggests that he cannot himself use any of the catchphrases or other works created, since the Times Group is vested with the “sole and exclusive” right over their exploitation.

Even as this controversy heated up, Goswami changed tack and began using a tweaked version of the catchphrase, that is, “The Nation Still Wants To Know”. I’m not sure if this is what he intended, but this clever adaptation gets him off the contractual hook: for, on a strict literal reading, the contract only covers the actual catchphrase used on Times Now: “The Nation Wants to Know”. One could well argue that this contractual vesting of rights does not necessarily extend to “variants” of the said catchphrase.

But then again, if the variant is confusingly similar to the original, shouldn’t this be actionable under trademark law? And this is where one needs to dive a bit deeper into the legal nuances.

Trademark protection is of two kinds. One comes through legal registration under the terms of the Trademarks Act. The other is for marks that are not yet registered, but boast a considerable reputation. In such cases, courts protect such marks through the common-law doctrine of “passing off”.

In the case at hand, the mark is yet to be registered and the Times Group has only filed an application for the same. Therefore, at this stage, Times Now can only resort to an action for passing off. The key test for passing off turns on “public” perception: would the public at large be confused by the usage of the mark by a third party (someone other than the proprietor)?

Even assuming the Times Group is the owner of the mark (under the terms of the contract), Goswami could well argue that the public associates the mark with him; perhaps even exclusively so. And if he sees it fit to jump ship and dole out his “Nation Still Wants To Know” spiel from another deck called the “Republic”, so be it. The public will associate the newly adapted mark with Goswami alone and there is no likelihood of confusion. More so, since he does this under the aegis of a new “Republic”.

No doubt this defies conventional wisdom, but then again, Goswami’s busting of the TRP charts with his unconventional pulping of panelists did too.

What of the other intellectual property (tape recordings of conversations, etc) that had allegedly been stolen from the Times Group? It is this “stealing” that forms the basis of the criminal complaint filed before the Mumbai police.

Even assuming these recordings constitute valuable IP (whether as copyrights or confidential information) and as per the contract, all of this belongs to the Times Group, the contract alone cannot determine the outcome. For at least one of these recordings appear to have been made without the consent of the parties, raising issues about its legality.

This alleged recording (most likely from a wiretap) is of a conversation between Lalu Prasad Yadav and Shahabuddin; a recording that even by the Times Group’s own admission (in the criminal complaint that it filed) was likely made without the consent of the parties concerned. In fact, the complaint appears to suggest that Times Now is not even sure that it possessed such a recording in the first place; and was made aware of this only after Goswami used it for Republic. Which then leads to the possibility that Goswami could well have got this recording from elsewhere and not necessarily whisked it out of the Times office when he left. All of this throws the copyright enforcement bit into some doubt, given the suspect subject matter of the claim.

The second recording pertains to a recorded interview with Sunanda Pushkar and Shashi Tharoor’s personal aide, Narayan. Here again, unless Pushkar and Narayan’s consent had been procured, the copyright enforcement may be a bit bumpy. And lastly, even assuming copyright were to exist in the above recordings, the law permits a fairly liberal exception when it comes to using such material for the purpose of reporting current news/events.

But then again, the taking of these “materials” (at least Pushkar’s recording) outside the premises of the Times office, as alleged, amounts to an independent offence under the terms of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and perhaps even the IT act. These materials may also constitute proprietary “confidential information” belonging to the Times Group under the terms of the employment agreement with both Arnab and Prema. While these two latter factors may weigh against the accused, there is still plenty of legal wiggle room for them, as outlined earlier.

In short, the bottomline is this: the dispute is more complex and nuanced than made out to be. Did Arnab know these legal subtleties before he took a chance with the Times Group? Perhaps so but that would be a tad bit ironical given that nuance has never been Goswami’s forte. He’s been more of the trigger-happy type, merrily casting most issues into black versus white boxes.

The author wished to thank Nikita Garg and Pankhuri Agarwal for their help with this piece.

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