On August 4, 2023, India’s Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2023, received Presidential assent and became the law of the land. Enactment marked the culmination of a decades-long process to update the country’s anti-piracy laws by cracking down on camcording in theatres and imposing significant penalties for distribution of illegally recorded films. This legislation marks a real breakthrough in upgrading the governance of India’s theatrical industry in terms of anti-piracy measures and modernization of the certification system. In addition to imposing deterrent punishments for piracy, the legislation has brought the film rating system into alignment with internationally recognized best practices and standards, removed the federal government’s power to review a film’s certification after the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has certified a film and replaced the ten-year validity of censorship certificates with perpetual validation.
The new legislation was hailed by both India’s film industry as well as the government. The Producers Guild of India welcomed the increased penalties for piracy, which stipulate a jail term of up to three years and a fine that can total as much as up to five per cent of a film’s production cost. This is a significant financial penalty that begins to reflect more accurately the impact of lost revenues for producers. The sanctions are not just for illegal camcording, but also for distribution of an infringing copy to the public for profit, both offline in physical premises and online. Through the imposition of significant financial penalties, the new legislation punishes not just the perpetrator of the camcording, who may be a low-level operative hired to take the risk of making the infringing copy, but also goes after the distributors behind the piracy. In other words, it “follows the money”. It is estimated by the Indian government that piracy costs the Indian film industry up to US$2.4 billion annually. The Indian courts and authorities have since 2018 done an excellent job of promoting online content protection via site blocking orders related to “rogue” piracy websites, and the new, focused provisions will give rightsholders and law enforcement an additional strong tool to tackle film piracy at the source.
The government of India, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, and indeed senior officials within the Ministry all deserve credit for pushing the initiative through. This significantly more robust stance against piracy, which has been the scourge of the industry for years, reflects the greater emphasis placed by the Indian Government on establishing and reinforcing India’s role as a source of innovation and creativity. As Information and Broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur stated so aptly, “India is known as a country of story tellers which shows our rich culture, heritage, legacy and diversity”. That storytelling tradition as expressed through film was under threat. Not only does the industry contribute to the country’s cultural richness and diversity, but it also provides employment for hundreds of thousands of workers, from film stars to caterers, designers, hairdressers, directors, choreographers, film technicians, musicians; indeed the full panoply of talents and occupations that make up the film industry. And that is not to mention the contribution of the film industry to the country’s GDP. A study commissioned by the Motion Picture Association in 2019 concluded that the film and television industry directly and indirectly generated employment of 26.6 lakhs (2.6 million) and contributed over INR 415,000 crore (US$50 billion at current exchange rates) in economic output.
While the anti-camcording and anti-piracy elements of the legislation constitute a major breakthrough, the other elements of the legislation are also important. Updating the age-related categories for “U/A” films, by creating new categories of classification in the U/A category that fills the gap between Unrestricted and Adult, has modernized the film rating system, allowing parents to determine with much greater accuracy what sorts of films their children can watch. The new categories of U/A 7+, U/A 13+, and U/A16+ will allow for content differentiation, expand viewing options for young people and allow parents to make the call as to what films are suitable for various ages. The previous “all or nothing” approach was not serving the needs of the viewing public and led to uncertainty as to the suitability of general U/A films for particular age categories. The regulation’s adoption of revised television ratings is another improvement on a previously informal process.
One of the more politically delicate elements in the legislation was the decision to delete any provisions that would empower the federal government to overrule the censorship authority (Central Board of Film Certification, CBFC) by revoking a film’s certification. Such reserve authority not only undermines the effective working of the CBFC but opens the film censorship and rating process to political interference. Given the judgment in the Union of India v Shankarappa case, doing away with the revocation of the certificate clause is a wonderful change. It provides greater autonomy to the CBFC and builds predictability and certainty for a film’s producer.
Last but not least, an additional welcome feature is replacing the previous ten-year validity of a film certificate with one that is valid perpetually. If a film clears censorship and is released, why would its certificate need to be reviewed in ten years’ time? If there is no good reason to do, the renewal simply becomes a bureaucratic exercise that unnecessarily burdens film producers.
To manage the vicissitudes of the parliamentary process, where bills can fall hostage to unrelated political issues and die on the order paper, the government introduced it first into the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, thereby ensuring it would not be expunged each time a parliamentary session ended. This was an astute move. It passed the Rajya Sabha on July 27, 2023, and the Lok Sabha, by voice vote, on July 31, 2023. That is an amazing feat after more than 40 years of delay since the legislation was last amended in 1982.
The film industry is truly one of India’s cultural gems, along with its great art, literature and religions. Indian films are a dynamic cultural and economic force domestically and globally. Now the investment that goes into producing them will be better protected and there will be much greater certainty regarding the sanctity of cleared and rated content. The industry will continue to grow and flourish through the creativity and artistry of Indian talent. But the Government of India has played an important role helping to secure this future. Shabash!
© Hugh Stephens 2023.