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Firewall for Bolly diplomacy against copyright questions

- India seeks film screening rights after jibes from foreign envoys
Mission blockbusters: A few of the 25 films India is seeking screening rights for after jibes that it might be violating its own copyright law by showing films at its missions abroad

New Delhi, June 24: India’s foreign policy establishment, which counts Bollywood as a key aide in spreading the nation’s footprint globally, is readying to pay the film industry back — literally — to stave off embarrassing jibes and potential litigation.

The foreign ministry is purchasing the rights for India’s embassies and consulates to screen 25 popular Bollywood films after some diplomats, including at least two foreign envoys, pointed out that the legality of screenings by missions at present is dubious.

The films, which will be broadcast at film festivals and at regular weekly screenings at Indian missions, include blockbusters like the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer My Name is Khan, the low-budget Vicky Donor, and Kahaani, a thriller starring Vidya Balan set in Calcutta.

The move comes at a time Indian missions across the world, from North Korea to Brazil and Jordan to Russia, are increasingly holding regular screenings of films that are popular both with Indian expatriates and with local people in those countries.

“It’s a precautionary measure,” a senior official said. “No one has ever had, nor has any intention of violating any law and the film screenings help popularise those films too. But we don’t want to take a chance.”

In part, the decision is recognition of Bollywood’s long — and continuing — role in building global goodwill for India. Raj Kapoor’s songs from several decades back remain popular with many Chinese and Russians, and Shah Rukh and Salman Khan are household names in northern Nigeria and across West Asia.

Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots, a film about the pressures college students face in India, resonated in China, where — like India — stress on higher education aspirants is a subject of growing concern.

In February this year, the Indian embassy in Moscow screened the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Black. The embassy in Brazil organised a festival of Indian films late last year. India celebrated 40 years of diplomatic ties with North Korea last year by screening Aamir’s Taare Zameen Par. And in February 2013, the mission in Amman screened Chakde! India and 3 Idiots.

But the purchase of screening rights is rooted in concerns voiced by Indian officials — and jibes by at least two foreign diplomats — over the need to completely firewall the foreign ministry from any uncomfortable questions over film screenings at foreign missions.

Indian missions have been screening films using legally bought original DVDs, with permission granted by the host country and in many cases, officials said, with an informal okay from the production house that made the movie.

Copyright violations, globally, generally require the offender to have used the product for commercial purposes without a licence. Since the screenings at Indian missions were non-profit and non-commercial exercises, officials were confident they were not violating any law, and that their use fell comfortably within the ambit of what is known as “fair use” — acceptable use without a licence.

But a strict reading of the Copyright Act suggests “fair use” exemptions for broadcasting films to the public are limited, and the government — to benefit from these — would need to demonstrate that the movie screenings are aimed at “reporting of current events” in India.

“That may work, but it may not,” said a senior diplomat at an Indian mission that has held two film screening weeks over the past few years. “Why take a chance?”

The foreign ministry, instead of applying individually to production houses that own the copyrights to the 25 films, has decided to seek out firms that already hold the necessary licences to broadcast these movies for non-commercial and non-profit purposes.

“Bollywood and Indian diplomacy go back a long way,” another official said. “And no one wants to do anything that may jeopardise it, especially given how much our missions are using Bollywood to tap goodwill for India.”