Copyright Barriers: Theoretical And Doctrinal Insights On Religious Scriptures

Copyright Barriers: Theoretical And Doctrinal Insights On Religious Scriptures

This piece has been authored by Saumya Bapna, II Year BA.LLB- National Law School of India University


Against the backdrop of limited scholarly debates and authoritative rulings on the intersection between intellectual property rights (IPR) and religious scriptures,  the Delhi High Court made substantial strides by passing an interim award on 21st September 2023 in Bhaktivedanta Book Trust v. This ruling serves as an initial foundation, laying the groundwork for a more nuanced examination of the legal standing of religious scriptures under the Copyright Act.

This article firstly, provides a brief overview of the facts and the judgement in Bhaktivedanta Trust. Secondly, it assesses the court’s decision from a theoretical perspective. Lastly, it examines the judgement’s alignment with copyright law doctrines and the Indian legal framework.


An injunction suit had been brought before the Delhi High Court by the plaintiffs, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, a trust founded by Srila Prabhupada, a renowned author and spiritual guru. His teachings and lectures were documented in various books that were subsequently published in numerous languages. These books serve an important role by interpreting and simplifying complex concepts found in original religious scriptures, making them more accessible to a wider audience

The Plaintiff alleged unauthorised use of these books and brought a suit for a permanent injunction against seventeen defendants for infringing its copyright in the books by making it available through various social media platforms. Here, the defendants had reproduced the plaintiff’s books in a verbatim manner and even cited the trust’s name as the source. Therefore, the plaintiff sought damages and injunction against the defendants. In considering the plaintiff’s claims, the critical legal question for the single-judge bench was whether copyright could extend to original religious scriptures and their derivative works.


Justice Pratibha reasoned that original religious scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita are ‘public domain’ works, lying outside the ambit of section 3 of the Copyright Act. However, adaptations, such as dramatic works and television series, offering explanations, summaries and diverse interpretations of the original scriptures can be recognised as ‘transformative works.’ Hence copyright would be conferred upon such derivative works only for their original components which are not mere reproductions of the publicly accessible scriptures.

The plaintiff’s work, centered on the Shrimad Bhagavad Geeta and integrating teachings from Srila Prabhupada, could thus be considered a ‘transformative work,’ eligible for copyright protection. As such, the defendant’s actions constituted copyright infringement under Section 51. Consequently, the court directed to restrain the defendants from reproducing the plaintiff’s works in any medium.


In light of this decision, the following section explores the compatibility of religious texts with intellectual property rights (IPR) through the theoretical frameworks of the economics theory and Locke’s theory of labour.


Proponents of the economics theory argue that granting exclusive rights to a work acts as a significant incentive for innovation, encouraging individuals to invest in creating new works. Within this context, the theory aligns with the utilitarian rationale that justifies IPR’s existence by highlighting the societal benefits derived from their functions.  This theory posits that the primary motivation behind creating copyrightable works is financial gain.

Thus, it becomes crucial to examine if religious establishments seek copyright protection solely for economic reasons. Although financial considerations might be secondary, religious organizations could assert exclusive rights to safeguard the integrity of their doctrines and suppress potential criticism.[1] Hence, copyright can become a means of censorship, protecting a religious group’s views, as seen in Scientology, where the primary aim is maintaining the confidentiality of its doctrines. In Hubbard v. Vosper the Church of Scientology sought a remedy under copyright law against one of its former members for publishing a book that made its confidential doctrines accessible to the larger public. Here the primary motivation of the Church in seeking copyright protection was to preserve the secrecy of its doctrines.

This trend of religious organisations asserting IPR for censorship aims under the garb of financial considerations has been recognised by the Indian Judiciary in Zac Poonen v. Hidden Treasure Literature. The dispute, in this case, was pertaining to the infringement of copyright over sacred songs and hymns of a religious group called Smith’s Friends. One of the former members of the group had introduced some changes in the words and expressions of these songs and had made them publicly available through multiple books. The religious group alleged that this amounted to copyright infringement. However, the court held that the changes made by the member were in light of his own interpretation of the religious doctrines. It was a completely distinct work even though the theme was the same.  Moreover, the judges opined that the religious group’s literature was not a sacred depository, to be shielded from desecration. Instead, it was intended for public use, making copyrighting counterproductive to their fundamental aim of widespread dissemination. Therefore, the attempt of the religious group to preserve the purity of their doctrines through the use of copyright failed in this case

Hence, copyrighting religious scriptures may incentivise censorship rather than serve as a financial incentive that promotes societal welfare, thereby contradicting the principles of economics theory. Moreover, religious organisations need not have a financial motive in publishing their works. These works generally arise out of their spiritual or moral obligations which lie outside the ambit of the economics theory.


John Locke argued that natural resources are common to all, and no single individual possesses property rights over them. Yet, an individual can claim rights over goods produced through their labour. This claim is founded on the premise that labour is an extension of the individual. Applying this theory to IPR, it argues that an individual’s labour is necessary to transform an ‘idea,’ which is ‘held in common,’ into something proprietary.  Thus, because an individual’s labour is crucial in creating a work, they rightfully obtain copyright over it. The theory depends on the labour of a recognizable individual to justify the allocation of exclusive rights.

Can the creation of religious scriptures be traced back to the labour of a particular individual? Several religious organisations claim that their religious scriptures and holy books are either creations of God or have an eternal existence with no particular author. These claims, when viewed from the perspective of IPR, run contrary to Locke’s labour theory since here the grant of copyright protection cannot be traced back to the labour of an identifiable individual. Here can God be considered as the author of these scriptures? Under the Copyright Act the term ‘author’ has not been defined. However, section 22 provides that the copyright in a work subsists for a term of the lifetime of the author and sixty years from the year of the author’s death. From this provision, it can be inferred that the legislature intended to limit the term ‘author’ to mortal beings. Additionally, in Rupendra Kashyap v. Jiwan Publishing House Pvt. Ltd the Court interpreted ‘author’ to refer to merely natural persons. Therefore, under the current statutory framework in India, authorship cannot be extended to God.

The preceding analysis, within the contexts of the economics theory and Locke’s theory of labour, indicates that religious scriptures are incompatible with IPR principles. Therefore, the legal stance taken by the Court in Bhaktivedanta appears well-founded from a theoretical standpoint.


Beyond the mismatch between religious scriptures and intellectual property rights theories, copyright law doctrines pose significant barriers to extending protection to these sacred texts. This section assesses the challenges associated with conferring such exclusionary rights upon religious organisations through two doctrines: (i) the merger doctrine and (ii) the fair use doctrine.


Originating from the idea-expression dichotomy, the merger doctrine asserts that copyright laws protect only expressions, not the ideas themselves. Borrowing this principle, the merger doctrine posits that where ideas inseparably merge with expressions then such expressions cannot be copyrighted. The principle’s significance has been underscored in Mattel, Inc. and Ors v. Jayant Agarwalla and Others. In the case of Chancellor Masters of Oxford v. Narendra Publishing House, the Court determined that the merger doctrine applied when an idea can be expressed only in a few ways.

Keeping in view the merger doctrine, can copyright protection be extended to religious works? The contents of religious scriptures, considered sacred by devotees, can only expressed in a few ways to avoid distortion of the tenets of the religion. Certain scriptures are intended to be commands to the members of the religious community that cannot be paraphrased to ensure precise compliance. Therefore, in such works, there is an inseparable fusion between the religious idea and its expression. This fusion warrants the application of the merger doctrine thereby denying copyright protection to sacred scriptures.


The fair use doctrine allows for the limited use of copyrighted material without the copyright holder’s prior consent. This doctrine represents an exception to the protections afforded by copyright law. Deciding whether a particular use qualifies as fair use is a factual determination made on a case-by-case basis. In Folsom v. Marsh the court stated that applying this doctrine requires consideration of the purpose of use, the nature of the work, the amount of material borrowed and the market effects of such a use must be considered. An argument for extending copyright protection to religious scriptures has been made based on these four factors.

This argument claims that the fair use doctrine can limit religious organizations’ exploitative copyright practices. It is contended that the reproduction of scriptures for ‘teaching’ or ‘commentary’ falls under fair use. Additionally, given the non-exhaustive nature of U.S. law, it’s argued that the fair use doctrine could encompass religious uses. Similarly, in Bhaktivedanta Trust, the defendants had claimed that they had reproduced the copyrighted work merely for ‘preaching purposes’ at the request of their devotees. However, this argument is legally untenable in the Indian context. India’s copyright law regime has adopted a ‘fair dealing’ exemption, in contrast to the ‘fair use’ doctrine used in other countries. In India, a work is exempt from copyright infringement only if it meets the criteria specified in Section 52 of the Copyright Act. The fair dealing provision does not list religious use of scriptures among its purposes. Moreover, section 52(1)(i) allows reproduction of a work only in the course of instruction or as part of an examination. Under Section 52(1)(j), the performance of a literary or dramatic work qualifies as fair dealing only when it occurs as part of an educational institution’s activities. A joint reading of these two provisions suggests that ‘teaching purposes’ can only be narrowly interpreted in an educational context and cannot be expanded to include religious uses. The Court’s interpretation of Section 52(1)(h) in Chancellor Masters supports this narrow understanding. In this instance, while the term ‘instruction’ under Section 52(1)(h) was broadly interpreted, it was applied exclusively to educational settings. The interpretation of this section was confined to the dynamics of a teacher-pupil relationship. Consequently, the phrase ‘course of instruction’ cannot be broadly interpreted to encompass religious activities, even those intended for ‘preaching purposes.’


The preceding analysis concludes that extending copyright protection to sacred scriptures is fraught with legal complexities and potential consequences that could undercut the foundational principles of copyright law. Considering these factors, the Bhaktivedanta Trust judgment is commendable for determining that religious scriptures are not susceptible to copyright protection. Although the judgment does not extensively explore the legal complexities, this paper offers a solid rationale in its favour, grounded in both theory and practical observations.  This analysis confirms that the nature of religious scriptures transcends the realm of exclusive rights Against this backdrop, the Bhaktivedanta Trust judgment lays the groundwork for further investigation into the intersection of religious content and intellectual property rights.

[1] David A. Simon, ‘In Search of (Maintaining) the Truth: The Use of Copyright Law by Religious Organisations’ (2010) 16(2) Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review 355, 379.

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