SC upholds TRAI Act over Copyright Act in tariff order case

TRAI Act is more concerned with consumers’ interest than the Copyright Act.

MUMBAI: The two-judge bench of the apex court with Justices Rohinton Fali Nariman and Navin Sinha dismissed the Star India’s appeal against Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) recent tariff order. The principal area of the argument by the broadcaster was that the pricing of the content cannot be regulated by TRAI as it comes under the Copyright act. The verdict has clearly pronounced that the as TRAI Act is in public interest, it should prevail over the Copyright Act.

“The best way in which both statutes can be harmonised is to state that the TRAI Act, being a statute conceived in public interest, which is to serve the interest of both broadcasters and consumers, must prevail, to the extent of any inconsistency, over the Copyright Act which is an act which protects the property rights of broadcasters. We are, therefore, of the view that, to the extent royalties/compensation payable to the broadcasters under the Copyright Act are regulated in public interest by TRAI under the TRAI Act, the former shall give way to the latter,” the Supreme Court order said.

The 123-page judgment read that a copyright is meant to protect an owner’s work (original or re-broadcasted) and isn’t concerned with the interest of the end user or consumer and hence does not fall under the purview of the Copyright Act. It is the TRAI Act that needs to focus on the consumers’ interest.

The Supreme Court added that the Copyright Act will operate within its own sphere giving broadcasters full flexibility to change royalty or compensation. On the other hand, TRAI does not, in substance, impinge upon these acts. It even observed that broadcasters have freedom to provide their own choice of content and arrange their own pricing as long as they aren’t discriminatory or force subscribers to choose either bouquets or a-la-carte.

In the Supreme Court order, it was also noted that one of the functions of the authority, is to “facilitate competition and promote efficiency in the operation of telecommunication services (which includes broadcasting services) so as to facilitate growth in such services.”

The tariff order has been the subject matter of extensive discussions between TRAI, all stakeholders and consumers. The order read further that the focus of TRAI has always been to provide a level playing field to both broadcaster and subscriber.

Though the impending ruling led to lack of clarity, all the major broadcasters published their Reference Interconnect Offers along with the line of the order. As Star India was the petitioner, it did not publish its RIO.

“The SC order has empowered consumers across the nation. While the overall media and entertainment landscape has been evolving rapidly, it is for the first time in 26 years that such a strong and positive step has been taken to eradicate the lack of transparency in the cable and broadcast value chain,” ZEE and Essel Group chairman Subhash Chandra commented.

“This is the watershed moment we have all been waiting for. We feel that the new framework will bring in much needed transparency, parity, promote exercising of choice for the consumer and ensure orderly growth of the sector. The onus is now on all service providers to put their best foot forward and keep consumer interest in mind by complying with the required initial timelines and activities at the earliest,” AIDCF president Rajan Gupta said.

While along the same line TRAI chairman RS Sharma said it is a big win for consumers as per a PTI report, the verdict undoubtedly has far-reaching impact in broadcast industry.

Earlier in the Madras High Court, division bench consisting of Justice M Sundar J and Chief Justice Indira Banerjee gave a spilt verdict. While M Sundar’s ruling was in favour of Star India, a third judge upheld the tariff order except certain riders.

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