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MEDIA - TIMES DILIGENT LAWSUIT

 

Times group sued for Rs 100 crore

Times group imitates Zee-Bhaskar's "grey-tape" hoardings campaign, gets into a legal mess. Express hurries to catch up, stumbles. Watch the fun as it unfolds in Mumbai media!

Update: 5 April, 2005: Bennett, Coleman and Co, the publishers of The Times of India, has given an undertaking at the Bombay High Court on Monday to drop its campaign that hijacked the ZEE-Bhaskar advertisements for the combine’s forthcoming English language newspaper in Mumbai. Therefore, the has court disposed off the suit. However, the legal case against BCCL for damages will continue.

Ashish Kaul, vice-president, Corporate Brand Development Group, ZEE Telefilms, said, "The legal case on unconditional apology and our seeking damages worth Rs 100 crore will continue.”

The Business Times today carried a story that gave the impression that the matter has been decided in favour of BCCL. It has not been, and the suit was disposed off in the light of BCCL's undertaking not to use the ads any further. The case continues. Read below for details.

BY JM

2 April 2005: Mumbai journalists need not lose heart: if they thought that the closure of dance bars in their neighbourhood stole the spice in their lives, here comes spicier news to make good the "loss." Media giant Times group is in court on charges of copyright violation. The damages demanded from Times is Rs 100 crore. (With that much money, I could start a newspaper on my own!)

For those who came in late, here is the background: After years of stupor, the Mumbai media market is finally waking up. Mumbai, almost the exclusive domain of Times India, is under attack from raiders from the North like Hindustan Times, and, rumours say, Telegraph from the East. As if that was not enough, the Zee Group has joined hands with Dainik Bhaskar to launch an English newspaper. Unconfirmed reports say that the new daily will be called Sun.

In the run-up to launching their newspaper, Zee-Bhaskar has been running a hoardings campaign in Mumbai, which essentially included teasers. The hoardings showed faces of people with their mouths pasted over by grey tape. Below the face was the tagline: Speak up: It's in your DNA. The message was: Here comes a newspaper which will stand up for your free speech, and speak on your behalf. The hoardings stirred up some curiosity. Great idea. Thumbs-up.

Immediately afterwards, a series of advertisements about Maharashtra Times appeared in all Times group publications. The look of the advertisements was  almost the same. The ad showed people peeling grey tapes off their mouths, with the tagline below: Speak up, it's in your DNA -- Maharashtra Times. The advertisements claimed higher readership for Maharashtra Times over rival Loksatta. Its complete similarity with the Zee material, to us, looked more than sheer coincidence.

Why Maharashtra Times? According to Times, their local language (Marathi) paper Maharashtra Times has overtaken its Express counterpart Loksatta. Loksatta disputes this, as any self-respecting newspaper would. (About self-respect: you would remember that during last year's release of Indian Readership Survey figures, some media organisations had moved court in Jaipur and Delhi against the release of the report. HT claimed that it still had more readers than Times. As you can see, all self-respecting newspapers accept their rival's readership figures only so far as their own numbers are better.)

Since the Maharashtra Times campaign did not gel with the Express-Loksatta worldview, something had to be done. Soon, all Express group publications came out with a series of speak-up and grey- tape ads. Again, the advertisements were identical -- faces fiercely pulling off grey tapes and endorsing Loksatta. The campaign ran across all Indian Express group publications, including Express, Loksatta and Financial Express, across all their national editions. Mumbai's tabloid newspaper Mid-Day, which is 10% owned by Indian Express, too carried the same series of ads.

However, Express, in its eagerness to run past Loksatta and Zee-Bhaskar, stumbled and fell. How? There were two sets of ads prepared by Express, one set of ads in Marathi, (for publication in Loksatta) and the other set in English (for publication in Express and Financial Express). As it happened, the Marathi ads appeared in Express and Financial Express in Mumbai. Outstation editions, however, published the correct English ad.

Someone in Express obviously got egg on his/her face. The next day, the English ad was carried again in Mumbai editions of Express and FE. We can understand the heartburn.

However, the battle of grey tapes was not over yet. Diligent Media Corporation, the joint venture formed by Zee and Dainik Bhaskar for their upcoming newspaper filed a suit against Times for stealing their original idea. Diligent Media charged "infringement of copyright, Passing of Action and resorting to unfair business practice with a view to derive unfair business advantage, with malicious intention and motive".

The case came up for hearing on Friday, April 2 before Justice DG Karnik. The Bennett Coleman (who owns Times group publications) counsel stated that the plaintiff has offered, in its letter dated March 29, 2005, not to pursue any legal action against the defendants provided they "tender an unconditional apology for their ad campaign". He sought time upto Monday, April 4, to consider this offer.

The court directed Times Group not to issue any further advertisements of similar or same nature or resembling the ad campaign of plaintiff. The matter will be heard on Monday, April 4.

Speaking to a website, Ashish Kaul, Vice-President at Essel Group said: "The hoardings were part of a teaser campaign in which the main draw is the curiosity factor. TOI tried to hijack the curiosity factor by using it to their advantage in their own ad. It certainly was disappointing to see such a large group of repute indulging in unfair practices and above all their agency gleefully admitting that they cheated our campaign. This was unethical on their part."

Bet Times to fight a battle before giving up. Saturday readers of Times of India in Mumbai were baffled by a fat 4-column story in Business Times titled Unborn paper claims copyright breach for unclaimed ad. The report, without giving any details, tried to make light of the "hijack suit," citing "maturing media campaigns" and "fun and humour in advertisements".

The Times "report", almost 500-words long, quoted Maharashtra Times Editor Bharat Kumar Raut and vice-president (brand) Ranjeet Kate all through the story. The story projected the Times view of things, without giving any versions from Diligent or Loksatta, all of which are now enmeshed in the sticky grey tape. Interestingly, the Maharashtra Times publisher spoke about his "freedom of speech" and "freedom of commercial speech", citing Sections 19 1 (a) and (b) of the Constitution. Click here to read related report on the tragedy of Mediaah, which too believed a little too much in the freedom of speech. The Times report quoting only its own management served to underline the old dictum that the freedom of press is limited to the man who owns one. Forget grey tapes and speaking up.

That is the story so far. Let's wait and see how the court rules in the case. The Times publishers can easily apologise and save the fight for Rs 100 crore. Or it can get down to a dirty battle which can go on and on. We believe the Times has little time to go into battle now, even as it is gearing up to launch a new "serious paper" for Mumbai and bracing for attack from the North.

Addendum

 The most hilarious thing about media free speech is its near-complete absence when media talks about itself. Given a choice, our press barons would clam up and talk nothing about their own institutions. And when news comes out, it almost always for self-defence and self-promotion.

Sample International Herald Tribune in India defending its publication here, Times of India promoting Filmfare awards and HT-Times battle of wits in Delhi. Reader's interests always takes a back seat. How many times have you seen headlines like "Times starting Chennai edition", "HT says it will open Mumbai account in May", "Express says it wont buy more in Mid-Day," etc? Never. Ever seen a proper media review column in Express, Times, Mid-Day? Never. Media mavens believe that news on the media is their preserve, which they condescend to dispense, at their own leisure.

BY JM

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