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Burlington Home Shopping v. Rajnish Chibber & Another, Delhi High Court 1995 PTC (15) 278

Author: Rahul Cherian

This is a landmark case which laid to rest the confusion whether a database consisting of certain compilation of data could be the subject matter of a copyright and henceforth claim rights under law.  

Burlington Home Shopping (hereinafter referred to as the plaintiff) was a mail order service company engaged in the business of publishing various mail order catalogues of several consumer items. These were posted to the select list of plaintiff's clients. The plaintiff maintained a compilation of a list of his customers in a self-created database. It was developed over a period of 3 years whereby the plaintiff invested substantial amount of money and time for its creation.

Mr. Rajnish Chibber (hereinafter referred to as the defendant) was an employee previously working for the plaintiff. However, his duties had nothing to do with the compilation of the database. It so happened that after leaving the plaintiff's establishment , he became the latter's competitor by entering into a mail order shopping business. While at the time of his association with the plaintiff previously he managed to get a copy of the latter's database. Now after the commencement of his own business he started making use of the said database for establishing relationship with the plaintiff's customers.

The plaintiff contended that the database was an original literary work wherein he enjoyed the copyright over the same and that the defendant had infringed his copyright by his act.  Accordingly a suit was filed by the plaintiff in the Delhi High Court seeking an injunction thereby restraining the defendant from make use of the said database for carrying out his business. The defendant contended that the said database was not developed by the plaintiff and as a result of which the latter enjoyed no copyrights over the same. Further he stated that he had developed his own database and the act of using it for his business would never amount to any kind of infringement of the plaintiff's copyright.

The matter in consideration before the court was whether a database consisting of compilation of mailing addresses of customers could be subject matter of a copyright. For these purpose the honorable judge consulted the relevant sections of the Copyright Act 1957, [as amended by the Copyright (Amendment) Act, 1994]. The Act provided for the following:

  • Section 2(o) defines `literary work' to include (among others) computer programmes, tables and compilations including computer databases.
  • Section 2(y) defines `work' as meaning any of the following works namely: (i) a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work,(ii) a cinematographic film, (iii) sound recording.
  • Under section 14, literary work is one of the items wherein exclusive rights can be claimed so as to amount to copyright.
  • Under Section 17(c) if a work is made in the course of other's employment under a contract of service or apprenticeship it is the employer who is the first owner of the copyright therein in the absence of any agreement to the contrary.

In order to gather the relevant evidence the court appointed a Commissioner. He made a comparison of both the databases and found that a substantial number of entries on the defendant's database were comparable word by word, line by line and even space by space to that of the plaintiff’s. In some of the entries the locations of commas and full stop were also comparable. In a good number of entries spelling mistakes occurring in the plaintiff's data were found in the data compilation of the defendant as well. Hence, the court was satisfied that the defendant had infringed the plaintiff’s copyright.

Hence, the Single Judge Bench of the court comprising of Justice R Lahoti granted an injunction in favor of the plaintiff, thereby restraining the defendant from carrying out his business by using the database exclusively owned by the former containing the list of the his customers. Further the court held that if the defendant was allowed to make use of the plaintiff's database it would for sure amount to a loss of business to the latter, which had to be prevented at all costs.