Monday, October 05, 2009

Portraits, the Father of the Nation and Intellectual Property [India]

A Division Bench of the Kerala High Court on 1 st October 2009 issued notice to the Union government, MontBlanc International GmbH, Germany, and other respondents on a writ petition that sought a ban on the marketing and sale of “Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 241” and “Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 3000” luxury pens in the country.

The Bench, comprising Chief Justice S.R. Bannurmath and Justice A.K. Basheer, issued the notice on the petition filed by Dijo Kappen, managing trustee of the Centre for Consumer Education at Pala in Kottayam.

Montblanc International, on September 29, launched a set of high-end pens priced at Rs.14 lakh each under its limited-edition series called the “Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition-241.” The 241 pens in the series were made to signify the “241 miles” travelled by Gandhiji during the Dandi March.

The petitioner said the attempt by the pen company to market luxury pens in the name of the Mahatma Gandhi was in derogation of national honour. The Father of the Nation was considered the epitome of simplicity and making him the symbol of a pen that cost Rs.14 lakh was nothing but an attempt to degrade everything he stood for, and to mock a nation of middle-class and below-the-poverty-line persons who look up to him and whom he tried to liberate.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote "I have no copyright in my portraits but I am unable to give the consent you require." in May 1931, in response to a manufacturer who wanted to use his portrait in roofing tiles. Nearly four score years on, an international luxury brand wants to do precisely what Gandhi expressly bid against - use his portrait in the manufacture of prohibitively expensive, limited edition pens.
As it has turned out, within days of announcing the launch of Montblanc's limited edition pens commemorating the 140th birth anniversary of MK Gandhi, the German premium pen maker has been issued a notice by the Kerala High Court on a writ petition seeking a ban on the marketing and sale of these pens.

Specifically, the petition draws attention to Section 3 of the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950 (download link), under which "no person shall, except in such cases and under such conditions as may be prescribed by the Central Government, use , or continue to use, for the purpose of any trade, business or calling or profession, or in the title of any patent, or in any trademark or design, any name or emblem specified in the Schedule or any colourable imitation thereof without the previous permission of the Central government".

Further, Entry 9A of the Schedule to the Act lists “the name or pictorial representation of Mahatma Gandhi” as an item that categorically cannot be used for the purpose of any trade, business or profession under the provisions of the Act. The petition argues that "Mahatma Gandhi is considered as the epitome of simplicity"... and "Making him the symbol of a 14 lakh pen is nothing but an attempt to degrade everything that Gandhiji symbolised, and to mock a nation of middle class and individuals below the poverty line who look up to him and who he tried to liberate."
"Gandhi's great-grandson Tushar Gandhi has endorsed the idea. His charitable foundation has already received a donation of $145,000 from Montblanc and will receive between $200 and $1,000 for each pen sold." Tushar Gandhi is reported to have announced at the pen launch that “It’s a pen which Gandhiji always associated with, it was his greatest tool. Also the donation is for an Indian Trust,which is for the good of the Society.”
The petition counters that the Rs 70-lakh donation received by the Kolhapur-based charitable trust, and Tushar Gandhi's subsequent comment is nothing but a "mischievous statement intended to give an impression that the Mahatma used Mont Blanc pens."
Tushar Gandhi seems to the only man standing in the Gandhi family in his endorsement of the brand. In an overnight response to the launch, the Mahatma's governor-grandson, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, has written a moving piece of his grandfather's relationship with the pen and the act of writing. Here, he recalls the story of the tile manufacturer quoted at the top of this note, as also other anecdotes which clearly suggest that Gandhi himself would have objected to the use of his portrait in this manner, were he alive today.
Meanwhile, Montblanc executives appear to be flummoxed: In an interview with the BBC,the company's chief executive Lutz Bethge stated that the pen was intended to honour Gandhi, and he "wouldn't have thought that people would have reacted negatively"