The Curiosity Infusing “John Doe”

There has been much ado over “John Doe” in the recent months and most of you may faintly recollect this as a familiar term from a randomly tumbled upon news report, or an article from one of the urban news websites or even social media posts. However, not many would have bothered to ponder over the intricacies attached to this American sounding name, particularly in the Indian legal context.

American sounding it maybe, but can facilitate a significant legal tool even in the Indian context, and in case you do not wish to make an American reference, you may even refer to it as an “Ashok Kumar”, our very own desi equivalent for the same. A John Doe or an Ashok Kumar is primarily used to refer to a person or an institution the identity of which is unknown or anonymous. In the legal arena, orders / injunctions passed against such anonymous persons / institutions are referred to John Doe orders or Ashok Kumar (for appeasing the Indian commoner).

Last few years, the country has witnessed a rise in the number of John Doe orders being granted by our courts, particularly in context of broadcasting rights and film productions, where the TV studios or production houses institute proceedings against Internet Service Providers (ISPs), cable operators and even such anonymous persons (identified as hosting pirated or unauthorised content), to block access to specific URLs or even entire websites for copyright violation. Kickass Torrent, for instance, may ring a bell here, the infamous website hosting pirated content and also notoriously in the news recently for the arrest of its alleged owner.

Last couple of months, in particular, have carved out a significant number of John Doe’s at the instance of film producers, such as Phantom Films and Yash Raj, to name a couple. Bombay High Court, for instance, granted John Doe orders for the recent releases of Udta Punjab, Sultan, Great Grand Masti and Dishoom, giving directions against unknown and anonymous defendants for taking down of specific URLs only, categorically identified as hosting pirated content and hesitated to issue strictures against mass blocking of websites which would result in blocking access to even legitimate content.

While such an approach in passing a John Doe order looks reasonable in light of the contemporary scenario surrounding online piracy and hosting of unauthorised content, the recent Delhi High Court order passed last week directing blocking of entire 73 websites in a matter concerning violation of broadcasting rights not only appears incongruous but also varying from the precedents in this field. This was a case where Star India had approached the Delhi High Court in 2014 seeking John Doe orders for potential violations pertaining to its broadcasting rights over the India-Australia Cricket Series (2014-2015).

This kind of an approach sets a not-so-welcome trend for the Indian scenario, where John Does may be granted on the basis of a mere apprehension / minimal proof of potential or existing violation, without even hearing the other side against whom the order is passed and where an entire website may be blocked on the said basis. A fundamentally flawed practice, hence, has been given wings to fly. Hopefully, the flight will not be a long one.

(This article is written by Jasneet Kaur, Advocate from Punjab & Haryana High Court)

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