The realm of copyright law often grapples with complex questions surrounding authorship and ownership, particularly when creative works emerge from collaborative efforts. The case of Najma Heptulla v. Orient Longman Ltd. (AIR 1989 Del 6) is a pivotal legal milestone that intricately explores the concept of joint authorship. This landmark case revolves around the publication of “India Wins FREEDOM,” a literary work founded on the thoughts of Maulana Azad, translated, and illuminated by Professor Humayun Kabir. The case underscores the significance of collaborative creativity, the interpretation of copyright law, and the essence of joint authorship.

Provisions of the Copyright Act in Question

The foundation of this case rests on several provisions of the Copyright Act, which played a pivotal role in the court’s deliberations:

Section 2(d): This provision defines the term “author” concerning literary works. The court looked to this definition to understand the concept of joint authorship and the roles played by the individuals involved.

Section 18: Pertaining to the assignment of copyright, this section outlines how rights can be transferred. It becomes a crucial aspect when discussing joint authorship and the ownership of rights.

Section 19: This section delves into the mode of assigning copyright. In the context of joint authorship, it gains prominence in understanding the process of transferring copyright ownership.

Principles of Estoppel: Though not a provision of the Copyright Act itself, the court invoked the principles of promissory and equitable estoppel to address the issue of consent and agreement.

Understanding Joint Authorship

Section 2(z) of Indian Copyright Act, 1957 says “a work produced by the collaboration of two or more authors in which the contribution of one author is not distinct from the contribution of the other author or authors.”

Nevertheless, this definition is not always adequate for determining joint authorship. Joint authorship denotes a creative collaboration in which multiple people contribute their intellectual and creative abilities to the production of a single work. It entails the fusion of ideas, imagination, and collaboration, resulting in a collective expression that transcends individual contributions.

Facts of the Case

The case unfolds with Najma Heptulla, the plaintiff, asserting her position as the legal heir of Maulana Azad, initiating legal action against Orient Longman Ltd. and Professor Humayun Kabir. The core dispute centres on whether Professor Kabir’s translation and interpretation of Maulana Azad’s ideas elevate him to the status of a joint author of “India Wins FREEDOM.”

Plaintiff’s Contentions

Najma Heptulla vehemently contends that the exclusive rights to publish the book belong solely to Maulana Azad’s heirs. She argues that Professor Kabir lacked the authority to enter into an agreement with the publisher, maintaining that joint authorship should not diminish the rights of the original author’s heirs.

Defendants’ Contentions

Orient Longman Ltd. and Professor Humayun Kabir offer a counter argument by asserting that Professor Kabir undeniably possesses joint authorship rights. They assert that his role extended beyond translation to encompass significant creative contributions such as editing and arrangement. This multifaceted involvement, they argue, qualifies him as a joint author.

Court’s Decision and Observations

The Delhi High Court embarked on a meticulous analysis, invoking legal precedents, statutory provisions, and copyright principles to ascertain the nature of joint authorship. 

It cited Donoghue v. Allied Newspapers Ltd., (1937) 3 All. E.R. 503, wherein Steve Donoghue’s racing secrets were not copyrighted because the expression was written by a journalist. It also cited Walter v. Lane, which established that reporters who add punctuation and arrange proceedings are also entitled to copyright for their creative efforts.

The court dissected the respective roles of Maulana Azad and Professor Kabir. While Maulana Azad provided the core ideas in Urdu, Professor Kabir’s contributions surpassed translation, encompassing creative transformation. Hence, he was entitled to the joint authorship of the book “India wins Freedom.”

Critical Analysis

The court’s critical analysis in this case highlights the nuanced nature of joint authorship. It dissects the creative journey undertaken by Maulana Azad and Professor Kabir, revealing that the process of joint authorship is far from a mere mechanical assemblage of ideas. Instead, it encompasses creative adaptation, arrangement, and transformation. The court’s observation that joint authorship goes beyond the inception of ideas underscores the need for a comprehensive understanding of copyright law in an era where collaborative creativity is increasingly common.

Key Principles Arising

  • Collaboration and Creative Expression: The court emphasized that joint authorship transcends mere idea generation, highlighting the importance of collaborative design and creative expression.
  • Principle of Estoppel: The court invoked the principle of estoppel, asserting that benefiting from an agreement precludes subsequent denial of its validity.


The decision in Najma Heptulla v. Orient Longman Ltd. stands as a cornerstone in the discourse on joint authorship within the realm of copyright law. By meticulously analysing statutory provisions, legal principles, and the collaborative dynamics of creativity, the court unravelled the essence of joint authorship as a harmonious blend of collective energies. This case exemplifies the delicate equilibrium between individual contributions and collaborative creation, enriching the intellectual exploration of copyright and creative authorship. The profound insights from this case reverberate through the intricate landscape of intellectual property law, serving as a guidepost for scholars, practitioners, and creative minds alike.

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