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Voice of fraud: Will Big B take legal action?

September 14, 2006 11:47 IST
Can Amitabh Bachchan take legal action against his voice impersonations on radio?

Will the real Amitabh Bachchan please stand up? It's not Eminem asking, but India's ad audience. Eveready, Cadbury's, Parker, Pepsi -- everyone knows he endorses these brands, among many others.

But a cement brand mouthing lines from Deewar on radio? A real-estate developer offering kalpana se bhi zyada adbhuth vishwas (from Aankhen)?

No doubt, Bachchan's voice is distinctive, and some of his cinema lines are etched deep in the psyche of the Indian cinema-goer. He draws attention.

The only little problem is that much of what you hear on radio is not really his voice. It's an impersonation.

The operating assumption seems to be that Bachchan's famous character roles are now public property, free for use in advertising.

But this is about his voice. And if his voice is intellectual property, its ownership ought to rest with him. So shouldn't he sue these impersonator brands for infringement?

Legally speaking, yes he can. Vivek Tankha, senior advocate, Supreme Court, says that it is the equivalent to using his picture without consent.

"After all, it is his property -- and if they are using his voice impersonations for commercial reasons without his permission, then yes he can sue them."

The actor can sue for damages -- with a claim based on the
benefit the brand has illicitly derived. There exist global precedents. In April 2005, the singer Tom Waits sued Opel for using his voice in an ad in Scandinavia
for its model Zafiro.

Adfolk agree Bachchan has a case. "It is unethical and inappropriate," says Sagar Mahabaleshwar, group creative head, O&M, "and well, if I were him, I would have objected."

Yet, some adfolk justify impersonations by equating them with caricatures.

Film spoofs, for instance, are obviously spoofs. What's the big objection?

In a word, ethics. And if the law doesn't enforce compliance, perhaps the market's self-corrective mechanism will -- if the ad audience makes its pique clear to impersonators.

In any case, the novelty value of a Sholay ad is wearing off, argues Mahabaleshwar. To his mind, it has become all too repetitive to serve much purpose.

"For how long will we hear the same kind of radio spots?" he asks, "It's high time creative guys put a stop to it." Adds Santosh Desai, president, McCann Erickson, "A developer or builder using his voice to sell homes is
absurd, and I don't think people would actually get enticed by it."

For their own good, they had better not. But maybe Bachchan himself will make a move. Why risk having lifelong grudges held against him by heaven-seeking home buyers if they somehow end up -- baritone-forbid -- in hell instead?

Aabhas Sharma in New Delhi