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Bombay HC quashes Sakal Media Group FIR against journalist : No violation of trademark

The Bombay High Court has quashed an FIR against journalist Prateek Goyal alleging trademark violation in an article filed in Newslaundry on the decision of the Sakal group in Pune to sack over fifty staffers of the Sakal Times. The court held that mere use of the registered trademark of the Sakal Media Group in the articles ‘do not fit into the definition of false application of the trade mark in relation to goods or services.’

A bench of the Bombay High Court comprising Justices S S Shinde and Manish Pitale held that the FIR (no. 0675), filed on Sept 16, 2020 was quashed. The order, authored by Justice Pitale, was delivered on April 20, 2021.

The order comes as a shot in the arm for writers who are sought to be intimidated for their reports on the mass-scale retrenchment and wage reduction of media employees. Journalists’ organisations had pointed out that the large-scale retrenchment and wage reduction of media employees across India was illegal. These measures, effected during the first months of the lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, did not follow any procedures or adhere to any legal provisions. 

Goyal had published an article titled ‘The future is bleak: Sakal Times staffers say they have been sacked in violation of Maharashtra order’ on March 27, 2020 and another on June 11, 2020, titled ‘They wanted to get rid of us: over 50 people laid off as Sakal Times closes down’ in the online news portal Newslaundry.

The Chairperson of the influential Sakal Media Group is Pratap Pawar and its Managing Director is Abhijit Pawar, the brother and nephew respectively of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar.  The latter’s daughter and Member of Parliament Supriya Sule is on its board.

Initially, the newspaper group terminated the services of 15 persons despite a directive from the state government not to terminate or cut wages of anyone during the lockdown. Subsequently, the media group retrenched its entire editorial staff of over 50 persons and shut down the newspaper.

Around three months after the publication of the Newslaundry report, the newspaper filed two cases against the writer and the news portal alleging that the articles were defamatory and that the official logos/trade mark of the Sakal Media Group and Sakal Times, which the portal had used to illustrate the articles, amounted to a violation of Sec 103 of the Trademarks Act, 1999. Violations attract six months to three years imprisonment and a fine between Rs.50,000 to Rs. 2 lakhs.

Curiously, officers of the Vishrambaug police station demanded that Prateek Goyal, the writer of the articles, hand over his laptop to the police. Police did not furnish any written order much less did they agree to providing the hash value of the computer, which can change if the contents are modified in any way.

Goyal filed a petition in the Bombay High Court challenging the FIR. Senior counsel Nikhil Sakhardande along with Nipun Katyal represented him. His lawyers contended that the trade mark of Sakal Media Group was not applied in relation to any goods or any services and there was no question of falsely applying the trade mark. Besides, it was an illustration and amounted to nominative fair use of the trade mark of Sakal Media

Group under Section 30(1)(a) and (b) of the Act.

The respondents (represented by Neha Prashant) said that the use of the trademark as an illustration was a false application, besides it unfairly projected the Sakal Media Group, thereby causing loss to its image and finances.

The order said that the ‘articles authored by the petitioner and published in the news portal ‘Newslaundry’ neither qualify as goods nor as service as defined under Section 2(j) and 2(z) of the aforesaid Act. No doubt, the mark shown in the two articles is indeed the ‘trademark’ of Sakal Media Group under Section 2(z)(b) of the aforesaid Act, but, the said mark being shown in the articles cannot be said to be in the context of either ‘goods’ or ‘services’. Besides, the mere use of the registered trademark of the Sakal Media Group in articles authored by the petitioner and published by the news portal ‘Newslaundry’, do not fit into the definition of false application of the trademark in relation to goods or services.

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